Schreyer Scholars help create nonprofit to distribute masks across the country

Brendan Bernicker (right) delivered 1,000 masks to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia on April 16, 2020. Credit: Provided by Brendan BernickerAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Two Paterno Fellows and Schreyer Scholars are working to make a difference in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Brendan Bernicker, a 2019 philosophy and political science alumnus, and Ezra Gershanok, a 2021 economics major, helped create a non-profit organization called the COVID Response Network. 

The purpose of the organization is to raise funds to distribute masks across the country to those in need who may not have existing connections to a medical supplier, such as homeless shelters, food pantries, and county jails, as well as those who volunteer and work at those organizations.

In addition to these two Penn Staters, the organization includes Rayna Recht, a sophomore at Tulane University, and Jacob Halbert, Gershanok’s business partner, a former Penn State student, and a junior at the University of Michigan. In 2018, Gershanok and Halbert created the Keyper, a silicone phone wallet that can not only hold cards, but also a room key. Their manufacturer recently offered to send them surgical-style masks, and from there, the idea for the COVID Response Network was born.

The group members have already sent 10,000 masks to New York, where the masks will be donated to homeless shelters. They also sent masks to a retirement home in Harrisburg that has a very short supply of personal protective equipment. In the last couple days, they delivered 4,000 masks in Philadelphia and 16,000 masks in Pittsburgh.

"Our main function is connecting donors with people who need relief supplies like masks. All we’re doing is connecting the dots,” said Halbert.

Credit: Provided by Jacob HalbertAll Rights Reserved.

The COVID Response Network’s goal is to distribute 100,000 masks by June 1, 2020. The organization sees this as an attainable goal that will help slow the spread of COVID-19.

“If one of our masks prevents someone from spreading the disease or contracting the disease, the whole process was worth it,” said Gershanok.

Bernicker and Gershanok attribute much of their ability to create this organization to their liberal arts education. Bernicker served as the College of the Liberal Arts’ student marshal for the spring 2019 commencement ceremony and now attends Yale Law School.

“In my commencement speech last year, I said that a liberal arts education helps people to understand themselves as agents of positive change,” he said. “This is what I was referring to. A liberal arts education helps us see the world how it is, imagine how it ought to be and find a way to use our skills, knowledge, voices, and networks to push the world as it is toward the place it ought to be.” 

Gershanok added, “The College of the Liberal Arts was instrumental in supporting the Keyper project. Through that support, I have gained the confidence to create my own ventures that address the problems within my community.”

Bernicker also stressed the urgency of what the organization is doing.

"We’re trying to help people realize that the masks are most needed now,” he said. “The sooner they get here, the more valuable they are. A lot of these organizations would rather have 500 masks tomorrow than 5,000 in two weeks.”

Those looking to donate can do so through the COVID Response Network Facebook page or the organization’s website.

'We Are' stories
The “We Are” spirit is perhaps more important than ever before, and Penn Staters everywhere are coming together in new and amazing ways. During these challenging times, our community is continuing to realize Penn State’s commitment to excellence through acts of collaboration, thoughtfulness and kindness. As President Eric Barron has written on Digging Deeper, this truly is a “We Are” moment — and we want to hear your “We Are” stories. 

Visit to share how you or other Penn Staters are supporting each other to overcome the collective challenges presented by the novel coronavirus. We are! 


Last Updated April 23, 2020