Reese Michaelson, Tim Whisler, Isaac Rinkleff-Duma and Nayan Narula — all students at Southwest High School in Minneapolis — were regular visitors to The Waters on 50th, a senior living community in Minneapolis. The tech-savvy teens mentored older adult residents eager to learn how to send e-mails, share on Facebook and text the grandkids.
Not even COVID-19 could stop this special partnership.
But now the four teens mentor remotely, by phone, video calls and group webinars. They’re volunteers with Cyber-Seniors, a nonprofit that connects tech-literate teens with seniors to help them understand and use technology.
“We grew up with it. They didn’t. So it only seems fair for us to help,” said Michaelson, who was recently appointed to the Cyber-Seniors Teen Leadership Council, which works with teens across North America.
Cyber-Seniors program manager Beth S. Winnick said the teens’ role has become ever more vital during the current health crisis.
“Not to be dramatic,” said Winnick, “[but] it’s a matter of life and death to help isolated seniors.” Citing a study published on WebMD, she noted that “loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes per day, meaning it’s more dangerous than obesity.
“It’s important for seniors to be able to connect with friends and family, order medications and groceries, find news and entertainment and get access to medical information online.”
The outreach, which began as a high school project in Toronto, has been active in the Twin Cities for several years. Before COVID-19, Cyber-Seniors offered in-person help at Linden Hills Library in Minneapolis and the Keystone Best Buy Teen Tech Center in St. Paul.
During the pandemic, older adults can sign up for free educational group video webinars on how to place a video call or listen to podcasts as well as order groceries, listen to music and bank online. They can also make a free appointment for one-on-one help from a technology mentor via phone or video call.
Michaelson, a sophomore and National Honor Society member, has worked with many seniors remotely.
“Many of them were hesitant to try FaceTime or Zoom,” said Michaelson, “but [they] have come around.”
While Cyber-Seniors offers help to older adults, two other student groups — at Minneapolis South High School and Hopkins High School — are offering help on the other end of the age spectrum.
Cecelia Kaufman, a senior at Minneapolis South, started a free tutoring program with fellow high school students from around the country. Called Tutoring & Advising Program (TAP) — taptutoring.com — the outreach provides help in English, math, history, science and many other subjects to middle and high school students striving to keep up as online learning becomes the norm.
The tutoring is done virtually, through platforms such as Google Hangouts, Zoom or Skype.
Kaufman said most of the tutors are low-income students who have been recognized as QuestBridge National College Match finalists for their academic achievements.
“I feel so fortunate to be giving back to students across the country who might be in a similar situation to my own,” said Kaufman.
A group of Hopkins High School alumni is also offering tutoring sessions, through the Hopkins Big Program.
In its first week, 15 alumni remotely tutored 70 students in kindergarten through ninth grade through Skype and Zoom.
“We wanted to set up connections so that kids could maintain some connection to school and older kids,” said Jessica Melnik, who graduated from Hopkins in 2019 and is now studying political science at the University of Wisconsin.
Hopkins alumna and Big mentor Mary O’Neil, majoring in business at Northeastern University in Boston, said parents can find it “kind of daunting” to be their student’s only source of help. And students, too, can feel frustrated, and not necessarily eager for their parents help. “So, I think that’s a place where we can really help,” she said.
The Waters’ volunteer Michaelson, too, finds the work rewarding.
“My favorite part of being able to help these seniors is just knowing that I’m able to make an immediate positive change in their lives,” said Michaelson.
“Even though I can’t see any of the seniors in person right now, everyone I’ve helped is always incredibly grateful and it’s an amazing feeling to be able to help them.”