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Tampa pre-med students, eager to help, start free grocery deliveries

The service, called Grocery Grabbers, offers grocery delivery for more vulnerable residents at no charge.
From left, premed students Varna Venkatachalam, Shreya Shivan and Roshni Kotwani are working with other volunteers to provide free grocery deliveries for elderly residents and those with compromised immune systems.
From left, premed students Varna Venkatachalam, Shreya Shivan and Roshni Kotwani are working with other volunteers to provide free grocery deliveries for elderly residents and those with compromised immune systems. [ Courtesy of Roshni Kotwani ]
Published Apr. 15, 2020

TAMPA — A few weeks ago, Roshni Kotwani, a senior pre-med student set to graduate in May from Boston University, came home shortly before she was supposed to leave on a spring break trip with friends to Cancun.

Within days, news about the coronavirus began escalating, and she didn’t go on the trip. Soon it was a pandemic, and she couldn’t go back to school in Boston either.

“I’m leaving my college life behind,” said Kotwani, who lives with her family in New Tampa. “I had to say goodbye to people virtually.”

Still, she said, she knew she was lucky to be healthy and wished she could do something.

She read about a group in Nevada started by a college student called “Shopping Angels” and was inspired. The students were picking up groceries for elderly residents for free, saving them the added costs of delivery services.

Kotwani contacted a few of her friends in similar circumstances — Varna Venkatachalam and Shreya Shivan were also pre-med seniors at the University of Florida who were back in New Tampa.

“Being a pre-med, our biggest passion is to want to help others but right now there’s not much we can actually do,” Kotwani said.

She initially recruited 10 pre-med students and started Grocery Grabbers, posting on social media groups to spread the word to elderly residents and people with compromised immune systems. Those interested could email or call in their lists and pay by cash, Venmo or Zelle, either before or after the delivery.

So far, they’ve made about 10 deliveries in their first two weeks and are up to 20 volunteers. Right now, they are primarily focused on New Tampa, but as the number of volunteers grows, they may try to expand to other areas, Kotwani said.

More than the groceries, Shivan said, the small interactions with the recipients during social distancing are rewarding.

“A lot of families we’re delivering to are elderly, and the people who are close to them are really far away,” Shivan said.

One couple told her about their son in New York who’s been worried about them while they’re worried about him.

“We want people to know they’re not alone,” Venkatachalam said.

As the three apply to medical schools, uncertain of the path ahead, each said they’ve never been more sure of what they want to do.

“Something like this really emphasizes what physicians do,” Shivan said. “They’re the ones in the hospitals on the front lines. For me personally, it’s made me more excited to go to med school and have that image that one day I could be on the front lines.”

Kotwani is seeing that firsthand. Her mother is a physician and listening to her navigate taking care of her patients, in person and virtually, has given her a new understanding of how important the field is.

“My passion for this has skyrocketed,” Kotwani said. “It makes me so proud of health care professionals.”

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For information on getting groceries or volunteering, email grocerygrabbers2020@gmail.com.