Grand Rapids – Ottawa Hills senior Randell Jones is used to handling big obstacles on the football field where he toiled in the trenches as an honorable mention all-conference offensive lineman, creating safe paths for running backs and protecting his quarterback from danger.
Now, though his high school football career is done, he has another opportunity to create safe paths and protective pockets.
Jones is one of six students in Grand Rapids Public Schools chosen to be student vaccine ambassadors by the state of Michigan, the first six in a program the state hopes to expand across the lower and upper peninsulas.
All six students volunteered to serve as Protect Michigan Commission COVID-19 ambassadors. Their role: urging their peers to get vaccinated and continue to practice preventative measures such as properly wearing masks, social distancing and frequent handwashing, all to reduce the spread of the virus until the vast majority of people have been vaccinated.
The program was unveiled in late April at DeVos Place in Grand Rapids, site of a mass vaccination clinic that put shots in the arms of more than 200,000 people during the short span it operated. The clinic is set to wind down operations by May 21 as Kent County moves vaccinations to smaller settings. Those include a series of clinics for GRPS students 16 years and older and their parents/guardians that will see the county partner with the district and Walgreens to provide the Pfizer vaccine.
Jones and his fellow GRPS student ambassadors were joined at a DeVos Place press conference by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Michigan Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, GRPS Superintendent Leadriane Roby and other luminaries. The event included all six ambassadors getting their first shot of the vaccine.
Putting Aside Fears for the Greater Good
For Jones, the event was a little nerve-wracking, but he put aside his fears, he said, for the greater good.
“I first heard about becoming a vaccine ambassador from my (football) coach,” he recalled. “I wasn’t sure, but when I had time to think about the positive message I would be sending, I had to say yes.”
He added that he and his family have been personally touched by the virus, having lost a loved one to COVID. That personal connection played a big part in saying yes. But, he said, even people who have not suffered such a loss should do their part.
“We’re all in this,” he said. “If you care for others, do your part.”
That perspective doesn’t surprise Ottawa Hills football coach Christian Verley.
“Randell is a leader, a hard worker and a motivator,” he said. “He is selfless, he is true and he is a servant. You would always want him in your corner, and you can count on him.”
At the press conference, Superintendent Roby noted that young people continue to be increasingly hard hit by the virus and that young people of color are among the hardest hit. She also introduced the student ambassadors, all of whom have excelled during their high school careers.
Jones not only earned three letters in football, he also was captain of the varsity swim team and is an honor roll student. He volunteered more than 2,500 hours of community service in his four years at Ottawa, including as part of the Grand Rapids Mayor’s Youth Council.
Two Seniors, Four Juniors on Team
Fellow senior Pablo Villalvazo of Union High School was president of that Mayor’s Youth Council, served the Grand Rapids Community Foundation as a student representative, volunteered at Gilda’s Club of Grand Rapids and more.
In addition, four GRPS juniors are ambassadors:
- Mi’a Jaden Johnson from Grand Rapids University Prep Academy, a 4.0 student who took AP courses and classes at Grand Rapids Community College and cheered for Ottawa Hills, including serving as a team captain.
- Ruby Taylor from C.A. Frost Environmental Science Middle High School, an award-winning artist and 4.0 honor roll student and member of the school’s Art Club and Gender Sexuality Alliance Club.
- Naomi Solis from Innovation Central High School, part of the Academy of Design & Construction and eying a career in music production.
- Esther Solis from Innovation Central High School, part of the Academy of Science, Technology, Engineering & Math and hoping to major and work in graphic design.
Though the ambassadors have not been given strict marching orders,, they are encouraged to informally network with their peers and spread a positive message about the importance of COVID vaccinations, even for their age group.
Randell Jones is doing his part.
In a recent email exchange with a reporter, he ended with this:
“Something I would like to say to everyone going through a rough time right now is I understand. And I want you to know that there are people there for you and that a lot of people are working very hard to end this. If you want to help, do your part: wear your mask correctly, keep social distancing and when it’s your time, get vaccinated.”