Coming Together While Apart

The coronavirus pandemic changed life as we know it, but it also created new opportunities for connection and inspiration. Here’s how teens have stayed strong, resilient, and hopeful during the crisis.

A trip cut short. A sick parent. Canceled graduations, proms, and birthdays. As we were putting together this issue of Choices, we were reminded of all the ways your lives have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic. But we were also moved by your acts of ingenuity and kindness: helping strangers, helping each other, and finding lessons in the challenges of the situation. While we hope that by the time you read this story the worst is behind us, we know that we’ll continue to be awed by you for years to come. That’s why we asked teens from across the country to share their experiences serving their communities, facing heartbreaks big and small, and overcoming adversity. Consider this both a time capsule of a historical moment and a handbook for moving forward: What have we discovered about resilience? How has our world changed in the past six months, and what have we learned? We hope you find some answers— and endless inspiration—with the stories below.

The Public Health Advocate

Yasmin Canales, 18, has a medical condition that makes social distancing a life-and-death matter

Yasmin, 18, safely connects with her sister, Yohanna. 

I was born with cystic fibrosis, a life-threatening illness that affects all of my organs, especially my lungs. I take medications that make me immunocompromised, which means it’s hard for my immune system to fight diseases, so the coronavirus is especially dangerous for me.

In some ways the current situation isn’t new to me. I’m used to wearing a mask, and I’m used to missing school. But normally I can see people, and now I can’t see anyone.

I have friends who are still able to see people, and it’s really frustrating that I can’t leave the house at all. We don’t have a backyard, so it’s tough to get fresh air. We’ve also been sterilizing everything we bring inside, like food and packages.

I see people on social media reacting to the pandemic as a joke, and I want everyone to understand that it’s life-threatening for many people, including me.

I hope the virus helps people understand how important vaccines are. We need herd immunity— where the majority of the population is immune to new infection—to stop the spread of the disease and protect immunocompromised people like me.

—As told to Emma Coburn

The Virtual Tutors

Sarika Sriram and Uditha Velidandla, both 17, created a free online learning service for kids

Sarika, left, and Uditha love checking in on kids in their online school.

Our schools shut down in March, and Uditha’s mom was looking for online resources for Uditha’s younger brother. We thought, if she’s scrambling to find resources, other parents probably are too. We decided to set up a temporary online school for elementary and middle schoolers.

We looked at state standards and created a curriculum, then spread the word. We thought that we would have maybe 10 students in each grade, but we had 150 students the first day. Volunteer tutors teach everything from English and marine biology to art and music classes.

At first we had a lot of logistical issues. But we got messages from the parents saying things like “My kid finished her lunch in record time to make it back for the science class,” which made us feel really good.

Both of us love checking in on classes. When we show up on the screen, the kids will say, “Hey, it’s the principal!” It makes us so happy that these kids get to see their friends. Even though they’re all sitting in their own homes, they’re still connected.

- As told to Emma Coburn

The Student Abroad

Alexx Barksdale, 17, was trapped near an epicenter of the pandemic without her family

Alexx coming home earlier than expected from her Italian program.

Last August, I began a 10-month Italian exchange program in a town called Latina, about an hour from Rome. I was really excited to experience Italian culture. I had no idea Italy was about to become the epicenter of a global pandemic.

In early March, my Italian school closed and we were stuck inside. My family in Oklahoma started getting nervous that Italy would shut down travel and I wouldn’t be able to leave. I hoped I could stay, but my mom said no. The day after I got back home, Italy closed its borders.

I know that my experience was minor compared to what a lot of people are going through, but I was still disappointed to cut my trip short. Now that I’m home, it really bothers me when I hear xenophobic comments blaming certain groups of people for spreading the virus. My experience has taught me that we shouldn’t be placing blame or pointing fingers. We should all be trying to help each other out.

Although it’s not safe right now, I want to travel again as soon as possible. Even though we’re apart from other cultures geographically, situations like this teach us how important it is to all come together.

—As told to Joey Bartolomeo

The Community Connector

Rem Johannknecht, 16, made sure seniors and people with disabilities didn’t get lonely

Rem talks to his new friend about his daily routines and challenges.

My grandmother lives in senior housing, and when the shutdown happened, a lot of seniors became isolated. My friend Lucy works with people who have disabilities, and the restrictions were having similar effects on them.

Lucy and I decided to start an organization called Connect Chicago, which connects volunteers with people who want someone to talk to. We emailed flyers to the managers of nursing homes and group homes, and recruited student volunteers on social media. By the end of April, we had 70 pairings.

I’m matched with a senior named Donnie, who is visually impaired. We talk about my classes, his daily routine, and how he’s learning braille. I also told him how I was turning 16 in May, and it was disappointing that I couldn’t get my driver’s license when I’d planned. Donnie will often say, “I’m here to listen to you,” which reframes our calls as mutually beneficial.

My goal was to help other people, but our conversations really did help me too. Our volunteers have told us they feel like this is helping them to stay connected as much it helps the person they are calling.

We want to keep Connect Chicago going after social distancing ends. People struggle with feeling isolated even without the coronavirus and can always use someone to talk to. Breaking down barriers to connection will always be relevant.

—As told to Joey Bartolomeo

The ER Doctor’s Daughter

Hannah Kass, 12, lived with her grandparents while her mom treated patients

Hannah and her mom stay in touch while her mom works in the hospital.

My mother is an emergency room doctor. From the start of the pandemic she was worried about the limited personal protective equipment for the doctors and nurses. She didn’t want to bring the virus home to us, so my brothers and I moved to my grandparents’ house in New Jersey to be safe.

Not long after we left, my mother came down with a cough and a headache. Then she tested positive for the virus. Fortunately, she eventually recovered. She went back to work in the ER and moved into a hotel so my brothers and I could come home.

We were separated for more than a month before she was able to take a test to confirm she had the virus antibodies and could move back home with us. Now when she comes home from the ER she gets undressed at the front door and then runs upstairs and takes a shower, in case the virus is on her clothes or in her hair.

This experience made me realize that doctors get a lot less attention and support than they deserve. They sometimes lack basic resources to stay safe. It’s amazing to think what a huge impact doctors have—not just on their patients, but on their patients’ entire families too. In the future, I’d like to be able to help people by doing something that has a similarly big impact.

—As told to Joey Bartolomeo

The Mask Maker

Gabriel Guo, 17, helped 3-D print 22,000 face and eye shields for essential workers

Gabriel shows two types of face shields his robotics team created.

I’m the president of FIRST Robotics Team 2471, which has students from a few local high schools. Normally we spend the spring working on a project for team competitions, but our competition season got canceled due to the virus.

Instead, we started making clear plastic face and eye shields for essential workers using 3-D printing, which uses a three-dimensional computer model to print a three-dimensional solid object.

We created programs for two types of face shields: one we call the Mandalorian, and another one we call the Stormtrooper, since they both look like something out of Star Wars. Later we combined the most popular parts of each model into a third version called the Vizsla.

The shields are actually pretty inexpensive to make; the state of Washington told us they were paying more than $2 per shield, and we can make one for $1.33. Crowdfunding, grants, and corporate donors pay for our materials. So far, we’ve delivered more than 22,000 shields to 97 different facilities, including hospitals, local care centers, and grocery stores.

Obviously, it’s really disappointing that we won’t have the chance to compete at the World Robotics Team Championships, but we now have all these great skills we’re using to make a difference in this time, which is really rewarding.

—As told to Emma Coburn

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