This COVID-19 project may turn into a Utah version of the Peace Corps

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) College students from numerous institutions gather in Herriman on Thursday, May 4, 2020, before fanning out into the community to explain the Utah Health & Economic Recovery Outreach program in hopes of finding people willing to be tested for COVID-19, to find out how widespread the disease actually is in the state. Educators and business leaders are hoping the HERO program, where college-age volunteers are now randomly finding residents to be tested for COVID-19, will blossom into something bigger. They are proposing to expand it into what will be called Hope Corps, with hundreds of students and other volunteers offering hands-on advice and resources to restaurants and retailers who's businesses are struggling in the pandemic.

Their budding futures put on hold by the pandemic, scores of Utah college students are signing up for internships to help expand random testing for the virus, in a project called Utah HEROs.

But that is only a start, say education and business leaders who want to turn the Health & Economic Recovery Outreach campaign into something far bigger.

Private donors and officials with the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business have spent recent weeks organizing and securing funds for what’s to be called Utah’s Hope Corps.

Akin to the U.S. Peace Corps, backers say the vision is to pay hundreds of young people who’ve seen job offers, internships or religious missions postponed by the COVID-19 outbreak to work with Utah’s struggling small businesses and nonprofit organizations.

“We saw a temporary need to fill a gap,” Taylor Randall, dean of the U.’s business school, said.

“I needed to find work experience for the hundreds of students who were losing internships,” Randall said Wednesday. “And in the community, we have these smaller businesses that perhaps just don't have the resources and are being left behind.”

With philanthropic support and backing from the Salt Lake Chamber, interns and businesses will be paired based on their skills and needs, he said, with their work overseen by mentors, business consultants and other experts providing guidance and advice.

They won’t replace existing workers, but instead provide technical assistance as host businesses adapt and return to stability.

Organizers of the nascent program say they’ll match them through a network of business-support agencies across Utah and a shared job board.

According to Ruchi Watson, an assistant dean at the school, officials have already hired more than 70 students from several Utah colleges and universities for paid positions going door-to-door in Salt Lake, Utah, Davis and Summit counties and enlisting more Utahns for antibody testing.

U. officials said late Thursday they now plan to double the number of students involved. The Utah HEROs study is meant to produce new data on how COVID-19 may be spreading in Utah and inform state leaders as they make decisions about health programs and the economy.

“We feel great momentum and community support for the program,” Randall said.

As those ranks of interns expand, some will be assigned and paid to assist owners of restaurants, retail shops and nonprofit groups to rebuild from the crisis and adjust their business models to new circumstances, he said.

And they’ll help with unique challenges — things like creating new hygiene standards in small workplaces, building mobile apps for curbside food delivery and reconnecting vendors with cautious customers — as Utah moderates its perceived risk from COVID-19 and lifts health restrictions, according to one of the program’s chief backers.

“A lot of times we’ve found that the best answers come from the young people anyway,” said Clark Ivory, CEO of Utah-based homebuilder Ivory Homes. “And as we get them involved, not only can they help, but they’re also going to learn a lot.”

The Peace Corps was created in 1961 by an executive order from President John F. Kennedy and it continues to this day, promoting world peace and friendship by assigning trained American volunteers to development projects in countries around the world.

The coronavirus crisis has created a rare opening for something similar in the Beehive State, Hope Corps proponents say.

Salt Lake City native Rosario Bibiano, 22, moved to New York City earlier this year for a 10-week internship at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Manhattan. But she had to cut that short three weeks prematurely in mid-March.

Now a senior at the U.’s business school majoring in marketing and design, Bibiano sought and interviewed for other positions, she said, “but I wasn’t really interested in those jobs.”

“I wanted to so something more in my community and something that could feel like I was using my degree,” Bibiano said Thursday. “And the Hope Corps gave me that.”

Randall said business schools at other Utah universities and colleges will be opening parallel Hope Corps chapters “to basically take care of their local community needs." And each chapter is being seeded, he said, with four paid interns, thanks to donations already in hand.

Program backers say they have initial support from leaders in city, county and state government. They’re reportedly also in talks with officials with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on the prospect of recruiting church missionaries whose missions have been derailed by the pandemic.

“It’s one of those unique opportunities where there’s a common need on both sides,” Randall said, “and some willing contributors and benefactors that want to solve this problem.”

“And it’s all starting to come together in some nice ways,” he said.