- Associated Press - Saturday, May 30, 2020

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - Natasha Hongsermeier-Graves calls herself a “feel-good freddy.”

Volunteering makes her feel good, she said, and gives her a purpose.

She definitely wasn’t the type to sit on the sidelines when the coronavirus pandemic canceled her clinical rotations at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. That’s not the way she was raised by parents Ivan and Jennifer Hongsermeier on the family farm near Phillips, Nebraska.

“I have to feel useful during this time,” she told the Omaha World-Herald. “I can’t look back and say I was useless during the pandemic.”

Although she’s still taking a class and doing research during this break, she has also been spending several hours a week volunteering. Many other medical students are doing the same, she said.

The list of projects for Hongsermeier-Graves is particularly long.

She’s a part of a pen pal program for seniors, making uplifting cards for people at places like the Open Door Mission and nursing and assisted living facilities. She has also been giving blood, helping with a product drive for homeless shelters, and baby- and pet-sitting for a UNMC resident as part of Covid Relief.

The project closest to her heart, though, is Musicians for Healing. It’s an enterprise she began with her flute teacher while at Morningside College. Diane Gross had battled cancer for years and died in 2019.

It took awhile to get it off the ground at medical school, but since the coronavirus hit, about 30 medical students have signed up to play outside nursing homes and assisted living facilities across the metro area.

“Anything that sounds uplifting or positive,” Hongsermeier-Graves said. “Renaissance to modern pop. Anything classical or things on the radio.”

If a place is large, the musicians divide in groups and rotate around the building.

For staff and residents of many facilities, it’s the first entertainment they’ve had in months, and Hongsermeier-Graves said you can tell that it makes their day.

Residents at Fountain View Senior Living enjoyed a visit last week.

“Many if not all residents with the ability to open windows or sit on their patios loved listening to the live music,” Executive Director Stephanie Riggs said. “It was a joy.”

The only downside has been the weather. Playing outside in rain or wind can be problematic.

Hongsermeier-Graves has a spreadsheet of volunteers and a growing list of facilities that they’ve played at since April 1. She’s hoping that the group can continue even when school gets back to somewhat normal this summer.

Rotations will begin at the end of June. She’ll start in surgery, one of the more intensive and the one that she hears causes the most sleepless nights.

She’ll miss these days. Volunteering has kept her busy and fulfilled, and has been a nice break from the grind of medical school.

“It just keeps my soul alive,” she said.

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