College senior creates a 'prevention pantry' to keep students safe in the pandemic

©The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA — When rising senior Jasmine Mays got to thinking about returning to Villanova University this semester, the coronavirus weighed on her mind.

“I was concerned about our safety and our actual security on campus,” said the psychology major and biology minor.

But Mays being Mays, she did more than just think about it. She came up with a plan, and then she sprang into action, enlisting the help of Villanova friends and administrators. She raised money, she networked, she amassed donations.

What came out of that effort is Villanova’s COVID-19 Prevention Pantry, a free resource of cleaning and other health preservation and feel-better products for any student who requests them. Aug. 22 was the kickoff event, with 100 kits of supplies available on a first-come, first-served basis.

“I love helping people,” she said. “I always want to do stuff to help people.”

If Mays treats her accomplishment as no biggie, there are many who would disagree.

“Jasmine is a natural-born leader,” said Stephen Koch, Villanova’s assistant director of student involvement for leadership programs. “It’s been phenomenal she’s been able to do this. She’s really paid attention to what the campus needs are.”

It’s not the first time Mays has seen a need and acted on it. Apparently, it’s just what she does.

“I was a Girl Scout growing up, and we always did service projects,” said Mays, 22. “We used to make blankets for babies. We did Thanksgiving drives and stuff like that.”

While attending West Catholic High School, she worked on service projects with the scouts and also with the National Honor Society. She especially enjoyed volunteering at St. Francis Inn in Kensington, which offers free meals to people experiencing homelessness and poverty.

“I would always be a server, because I love talking to people,” she said.

But she put a lot of time and effort into her schoolwork, too. Mays grew up in West Philadelphia in a single-parent home. Her mother, who instilled her charitable values in her daughter, has had a long, ongoing struggle with a serious illness.

“She went through a lot and she sacrificed a lot,” Mays said, “so I didn’t want my mom to have to worry about putting me through (college). That’s why I worked really hard while I was in school.”

Mays earned two full scholarships to Villanova: the school’s merit-based Presidential Scholarship and a Gates Millennium Scholarship, which is given to outstanding students of color with significant financial need.

Even before creating the prevention pantry, Mays was active at Villanova. She joined the Villanova Leadership Program, which teaches students leadership skills. She took part in the school’s team-building challenge course program, an obstacle course of physical and mental tasks students do as a group; she went on to become one of its facilitators (the program is now virtual due to the pandemic).

Mays joined the college’s Reach program, in which Nova students mentor high school students of color. Mays works with students from her alma mater, West Catholic, and is the program’s liaison to the high school. She’s advocated for adding a service component to the university’s Presidential Scholars program.

Her activism has also extended beyond Villanova, into the larger community.

This summer, after the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, protests and social unrest flared into rage and property damage in neighborhoods where Mays and some of her friends are from.

“People were looting supermarkets, and there weren’t ways for (residents) to get food,” Mays said. “We decided to do a food drive.”

The friends turned to Venmo and CashApp to raise funds to buy groceries. And on Juneteenth, they set up tables at Broad Street and Allegheny Avenue in North Philadelphia to give away the food.

While they were doing that, serendipity struck. Tyshaan Williams, executive director of the Alternative Resource Network, a faith-based organization that provides food, goods, and clothing to groups in need, was driving by in a tractor-trailer with lots of groceries on board.

“I was in the driver’s seat at the light, and I asked if they wanted any food, and they said sure,” Williams recalled. “So I pulled over.”

While he was unloading the provisions, he got talking to Mays. She told him about the other food giveaway they had planned for June 27 in West Philadelphia. Williams’ organization has since contributed food to that event and helped with the prevention pantry. He and Mays are now talking about working together on future projects.

“She’s awesome,” Williams said. “She’s very energetic. She’s a go-getter. She has a passion.”

Gabby Tanson, 21, a Villanova senior who helped with the prevention pantry and the food drives, has been best friends with Mays since they met in freshman year. She offered this insight into her friend’s motivation.

“She doesn’t care about who might recognize her, who might give her props and kudos. She doesn’t care about any of that,” said Tanson, an accounting major from Central New Jersey. “She wants to do good work and do good by the people she’s helping out. Nothing else matters.”

For now, Mays’ focus is on the prevention pantry. A GoFundMe page and a Venmo account are helping to restock the pantry whenever it runs low on provisions, which range from masks, hand sanitizer, and cleaning supplies to cough drops, tea, throat lozenges, and Theraflu.

The pantry has gained a following on Instagram, @VU — cpp, and Mays said even parents reach out to the page to get help for their kids.

May’s altruistic projects are shaping her plans for her future by revealing to her what she’s naturally good at doing.

“Working with Tyshaan has helped me realize I like to help people get access to resources they might not have access to on their own,” she said. These days, “My dream is to start a women’s shelter. If they’re experiencing any kind of trouble, they can come for any kind of shelter.”

It’s all about getting people the help they need.

“This is just something I love to do,” she said.

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©2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer