For Karen O’Dowd, Acting Principal of Abacas Special School in Dublin, the prospect of bringing students back into classrooms at the end of Ireland’s first lock down last year was a daunting one.
“Getting the school COVID-ready for the safe return of staff and pupils, after almost six months of mandatory closure, was a mammoth task,” Karen explains, “but it was made achievable with the very real support provided by Amazon Web Services.”
Pupils returned to completely modified spaces. They found floor markings, stickers, and playground barriers for social distancing; screen dividers for classrooms and multi-purpose rooms; hands-free sanitizers, foot pedal bins, elbow taps, and infrared thermometers throughout the school; as well as new staff room tables, allowing teachers to remain in their class bubbles when having lunch.
This back-to-school project was replicated in six local schools in total. It was just one of a raft of local initiatives supported by the AWS InCommunities team and organized by Thomas Carroll, a Data Center Operations Training Specialist with Amazon Web Services (AWS), and the volunteer group’s lead ambassador in Dublin.
In the two and a half years since Thomas began volunteering as an AWS InCommunities Ambassador, he has driven more than 25 projects ranging from refurbishing women’s refuges, to installing sensory rooms for pupils with special needs in local schools, and mobilizing more than 100 Amazon employees for a Christmas drive to provide meals and care packs for the homeless.
His passion and relentless enthusiasm for working with the local community has led his colleagues to describe him as “probably our most prolific volunteer in the world right now”.
Making an impact
Thomas, a Data Center Operations Training Specialist for AWS Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA), works at the company’s data center in Tallaght, South Dublin – the area where he has lived and worked his entire life, and where he now volunteers.
Thomas started out as an engineer with AWS six years ago, having lost his job as lead foreman on building sites when the recession hit.
"What I love about Amazon is the opportunity,” he says. “It’s so fast-paced. Within eighteen months I was given the opportunity to support the launch of some new data centers across Europe. As part of a team, I led a project to redesign a system within a data center. It’s a great environment to be in. Everybody's opinion is valued.”
“My day job allows me to work on projects that are globally impactful and my role as an ambassador lets me lead projects that have a meaningful impact in my local community.”
“My day job allows me to work on projects that are globally impactful,” he continues. “And my role as an ambassador lets me lead projects – with the company’s backing – that have a meaningful impact in my local community”.
As an AWS InCommunities Ambassador, Thomas identifies community organizations or projects in his local area that need support.
One of the first projects he took on as a volunteer was repainting St Killian’s, a local school attended by many data center employees’ children, including his own. Another was working with EPIC, a community space for adults with severe learning disabilities.
“When I first went to visit EPIC, back in November 2018, they had this sparse activity room with one drum, ten DVDs, a puzzle, and that’s it,” Thomas recalls. “It was so cold in there that they didn’t even use it.”
AWS has been building data centers in Dublin for over a decade, and during that time has built up invaluable business relationships with local construction, manufacturing, design and engineering companies. When Thomas needed practical building support, materials and more, he knew where to look.
He brought together a local building company who had worked on constructing the nearby data center, as well as around 30 other Amazon volunteers to insulate the floor, paint the entire space, and add couches, TVs and yoga equipment. They also installed sensory lighting and an LED cloud effect ceiling, created an art area complete with paints and easels, and added a brand-new IT zone.
At nearby Tallaght Hospital, AWS InCommunities has been able to make an impact in a range of areas. Design contractors were brought in by AWS to update a disused atrium area within the hospital – firstly introducing a quiet space for patients and families to browse six donated Amazon Fire Tablets, with new chairs and screens. In addition, the space can convert into an ‘innovation lab’ to up skill staff members, with writable glass walls, large screen TVs and space to seat up to 20 people.
While this space has been out of bounds during the pandemic, AWS also stepped in to provide thirty laptops for the hospital’s administration staff – meaning they could work from home and stay connected while juggling the increased workload of new admissions and inquiries.
AWS also donated Echo Show devices to the hospital, which have been used within wards to communicate between separate spaces without the need to remove or waste personal protective equipment (PPE) in the process. This means ward staff can simply ask, for example, “Alexa, ring the emergency room”, without having to move rooms or change equipment – saving precious time and resources in the process.
Another beneficiary of Thomas and the team’s efforts is the 160-year-old St. Brigid’s community center in Blanchardstown village, which the volunteers revamped.
In a matter of weeks, they had repaired water damage, painted, created a separate room for the Alcoholics Anonymous meetings held there, and decorated the walls with specially commissioned photographs of everything from pottery classes to pensioners’ yoga.
“The team that runs the community center were blown away by what was achieved,” says Thomas. “They said that they never imagined we would do so much, within one month of first making contact.”
Volunteering in the ‘new normal’
Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, the nature of what Thomas and the AWS InCommunities volunteers can do has changed. But, as always, they have adapted and found new ways to work. “We put together COVID-19 ‘care packs’ for the Amazon essential services team who were still working on site, keeping our data centers running,” says Thomas. “They contained masks, alcohol wipes, sanitizer bottles, and hand cream.”
“I had a chat with HR and asked if we could roll this out to people in the community. I reached out to our friends in the local residence committees and the Gardaí [police] to drop them to the most vulnerable people in the local area.”
For Halloween 2020, held during a local lock down, the AWS volunteers packed trick or treat boxes with sweets, surprises and a pumpkin and arranged for them to be delivered to the children at Abacas Special School and the Sensory Fun with Friends Group – a parent-led voluntary group for children with sensory needs.
They also arranged a virtual pumpkin decoration workshop for the kids at Sensory Fun with Friends.
Over Christmas, the AWS volunteers also re-configured their annual efforts to provide 10,000 meals for homeless people, but this time outdoors and socially distanced. They also put together special winter care kits – containing essentials to combat the elements – for homeless people who had lost places to shelter from the cold as a result of COVID-19.
A virtual card making workshop saw AWS staff and teenagers from a local secondary school create 680 cards to place inside hundreds of special Christmas boxes. There were festive surprise packs for children and festive hampers for families and elder citizens, all prepared by volunteers and delivered by police officers to a women’s refuge and disadvantaged families in the local community.
Most importantly for Thomas and the volunteers, their relationship with each of the projects is ongoing.
“Everywhere we’ve been to, we pop back to regularly,” he explains. “We want to continue to work together. I’m looking forward to seeing how much has been accomplished in our communities ten years from now.”
Find out more about Amazon’s community engagement across Europe.