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No Stranger

Amid the uncertainty, anxiety, and fear surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, the Pepperdine community finds purpose in serving those with the greatest needs

As headlines announcing catastrophic shortages of personal protective equipment painted horrific scenes of frontline responders reusing their last remaining face mask or wearing their protective clothing inside out to preserve their hospitals’ dwindling supplies, alumnus Jay Milbrandt (MBA ’07, JD ’08) was compelled to action.


Milbrandt is the president of Bedford Industries, a manufacturer based in Worthington, Minnesota, that produces packaging components such as twist ties and promotional tags—and the nose wire used in face masks and other medical products that have been in limited supply as healthcare workers continue the fight against COVID-19. One news story about doctors and nurses fashioning masks out of office supplies to treat infected patients caught Milbrandt’s attention. “We have the manufacturing technology, the capacity, the scale, and the ability to make a product that could really be helpful,” thought Milbrandt, who has been a part of the company since 2008.

Without the proper safety equipment, including protective clothing, helmets, gloves, goggles, face masks, and respirators, healthcare workers treating patients infected with the deadly coronavirus face the dire threat of exposure to the contaminants from which they are trying desperately to protect their patients.

Through input from local hospitals, Milbrandt learned that face shields were the most-desired item among medical workers. On March 19 developers at Bedford Industries began designing the prototype. By 3 PM they had created a sample, and eight days later they were producing 70,000 shields a day. “They allow workers to keep using their N-95 masks and provide them with a much-needed physical barrier of protection,“ Milbrandt says.

The product development process typically takes six months or longer, but “now every second counts,” says Milbrandt. Bedford Industries aims to produce about 150,000 shields a day and to deliver them wherever they are needed as quickly as possible. As someone with a history of social justice work—Milbrandt directed the global justice program at the Caruso School of Law after graduating—the choice to retool his plant came easily. “How could we not go after this opportunity?” he asks. “We had this unique ability to make a difference.”

Distributing shields to facilities in the Midwest has been a powerful experience for Milbrandt. “When they’ve received them, they’ve called us a game changer,” he says. “It’s very meaningful to us, that we can bring people some peace and comfort, and to be a part of the solution.”

As schools and services closed across the nation, Melissa Mayes (’06) leaned into the needs of her Richmond, Virginia, community. Drawing inspiration from historian Rodney Stark’s book, The Rise of Christianity, that details Christianity’s role in responding to two widespread epidemics in Roman history, she sought a way to let Christ—not fear— lead her response to the novel coronavirus. Mayes quickly assembled the Agape Village Emergency Response Team (AVERT) to provide emergency childcare for those whose work can’t be performed at home, emergency housing for those in unsafe or unsuitable conditions, food assistance, and other support for the difficulties that have emerged in the wake of the pandemic. After sharing with fellow church members, support grew in all corners of the city.

As an advocate for education access, she was acutely aware of the socioeconomic struggles of her community. Nearly a quarter of Richmond’s population lives below the poverty line and even more, like many Americans, were faced with severe economic hardship and lack of access to resources due to COVID-19. Some examples she shares are people like Kenyada, a single mother of five without a car of her own to get to the grocery store, and Lindsey, a single mom and survivor of domestic violence struggling with finances and to keep her son enrolled in the same school.

Mayes strived to make the resources as easily accessible as possible. With a few simple Google documents, she created a grassroots volunteer effort and needs assessment survey that could be completed in 10 minutes or less and shared effortlessly via email, text, and social media.

We’ve grown apart, not just from each other but the earth and everything that makes us whole,” Mayes told the Richmond Times. Her hope is that even in these difficult times, connection and community can be rebuilt as care is extended to the most disadvantaged and vulnerable. “Yes, these are all sacrifices,” Mayes shares, “but who better than us, for whom the ultimate sacrifice has been made?"

An emergency shift to online instruction is not unfamiliar territory to Pepperdine faculty. In November 2018, as the Woolsey Fire inched closer to the Malibu campus, Christopher Heard, director of the Seaver College Center for Teaching Excellence and professor of religion, developed critical resources for faculty to “Keep on Teaching,” a concept inspired by Indiana University’s Keep Teaching website.

On March 11, 2020, when Pepperdine announced a transition to online instruction in response to the social distancing protocols to limit the spread of COVID-19, Heard, in partnership with the University’s TechLearn department, immediately expanded the Keep on Teaching and academic continuity resources to include discipline-specific resources, best practices for instructors and students, and recommendations for online learning tools.

In an Education Dive article, Heard shared that while shifting to online instruction poses a “a big learning curve" for some, maintaining flexibility and creativity to reach learning outcomes is a main focus.

As universities across the nation were also making the difficult decision to move to online instruction, Heard’s resources were referenced by about a dozen similar centers, including Yale University’s Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning, as a supplemental resource, or used as inspiration for the development of their own resources such as Bowdoin’s Baldwin Center for Teaching and Learning.

Heard continues to support Pepperdine faculty through an online forum, Zoom coffee chats, and individual consultations to help faculty celebrate their achievements and work through the challenges in this new format. Beyond Pepperdine he hopes to continue to develop and share resources for all teachers who are going through this unprecedented shift.

Vulnerable and forsaken, people experiencing homelessness have exceptional needs during the most typical circumstances. Meeting some of those needs is the daily task of associate clinical professor Brittany Stringfellow Otey (JD ’01) and her students at the Caruso School of Law’s Legal Aid Clinic. And they’re determined not to let an epidemic stop them.

Stringfellow Otey has worked with the Union Rescue Mission in Downtown Los Angeles for more than 20 years. She and her students provide legal services to the mission’s 800 residents along with other indigent clients, many of whom are among the 2,000 individuals who live on the streets near the mission.

Law students generally meet with clients on a set schedule, face-to-face, and having to work remotely is challenging. “Now we’re relying on phones a lot, which only some clients have. And those clients may not be able to keep their phones in service; others may use a friend’s. It’s a lot of leaving messages and hoping to hear back,” says Stringfellow Otey. In one recent case, a client needed to file a response in family court that would determine custody and visitation arrangements for his child. The student and the client met via Zoom to finalize the motion. “Our student typed the motion in her apartment in Santa Monica, and our clinic coordinator went there to print and sign the forms so he could file them before the court closed,” says Stringfellow Otey. “This is an unusual way for us to do things.”

In spite of the many work-arounds they must devise, the clinic law clerks’ commitment has been unwavering, and as this event unfolds, they have a two-pronged goal: to support the team of case managers and chaplains at the mission and to ensure continuity for their clients. “When you’re living in a state of homelessness, you don’t have a strong sense that people care about you,” says Stringfellow Otey. “It’s important they know that Pepperdine cares about them.”

A Divine Network

On Sunday, April 5, Sara Barton, University chaplain, and John Barton, director of the Pepperdine Center for Faith and Learning, invited faith communities from across Los Angeles and beyond to join together in interfaith solidarity for the world in crisis. The virtual event was hosted on Zoom and drew nearly 200 participants in discussion, testimonials, and messages of love and support for everyone affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

“This is an unprecedented global event, especially for our generation, and we’re experiencing something that is affecting our daily lives intensely,” says Sara. “People are looking for rays of hope. Though we are apart, we were able to come together as a community in solidarity, in prayer, and in giving each other hope.”

Featured guests included representatives of major world religions in the Los Angeles area, including actor Rainn Wilson, a member of the Bahá’í faith; Edina Lekovic (MA ’09), a Muslim and host of Meeting the Moment podcast; Varun Soni, dean of religious life at the University of Southern California; Thema Bryant Davis, associate professor of psychology at the Graduate School of Education and Psychology; and Sukhsimranjit Singh, a Sikh and managing director of the Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution at the Caruso School of Law

“At a time like this, when the whole globe is experiencing a challenge and a threat of this kind, any connections we can make across bridges and boundaries to share in our humanity and our shared sense of crisis to take care of each other is a good thing,” says John. “While we have different understandings of God—and those differences are important—it is also important to reach across our differences in love and care and collaboration.”