Buying masks, delivering food: Teens are stepping up in the pandemic

DALLAS (AP) — In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, communities across the country have discovered a powerful resource that has stepped forward to make a difference: America’s teenagers.

They have delivered groceries to older adults, offered online tutoring, emailed sick children, helped feed the hungry. And then there are those like 15-year-old Valerie Xu, who raised money to buy masks to donate to a Dallas hospital and homeless shelter.

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“People have a good heart and are willing to help, and are willing to contribute to our society,” Xu said.

Valerie Xu, 15, delivers a donation, boxes of mask to UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, Friday, June 5, 2020. Xu is among teens across the U.S. who decided to take action as the coronavirus pandemic took hold, doing everything from delivering groceries to older people to offering online tutoring, to emailing sick children and to raising money to help feed the hungry.
(AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

Xu began raising funds in March. She was alarmed that some health care workers were having trouble getting masks, and disheartened to hear about unfounded animosity directed at Asian Americans over the virus that was first detected in China.

The response, she said, helped restore her optimism, and left her “very inspired.”

In Cupertino, California, 17-year-old Nelson Mu and fellow high school students started teaching online classes to younger children after schools closed in the spring. More than 2,500 kids from across the U.S. are now taking the free virtual courses on everything from math and science to art and dance, taught by a couple hundred teens through the organization YAPA Kids.

“People want to make a positive change,” Mu said. “That actually makes me extremely optimistic for the future.”

Early on in the pandemic, friends Dhruv Pai, 16, and Matthew Casertano, 15, of Silver Spring, Maryland, realized that they were both delivering groceries to their grandparents. They decided to reach out to friends to do the same for other older people who were self-isolating.

Teens Helping Seniors now has more than 650 volunteers nationwide and in Canada making free deliveries. The pandemic, Pai said, “has reignited the spirit of volunteering in our generation and within our community.”

Casertano said it has been rewarding to get to know the people receiving the grocery deliveries.

Dhruv Pai, 16, left, and Matthew Casertano, 15, both of North Potomac, Md., wipe down groceries with disinfectant as they deliver them to David Benkin, 85, and Rebecca Adler, 81, Wednesday Aug. 19, 2020, in North Bethesda, Md., as part of the nonprofit organization, "Teens Helping Seniors" that Pai and Casertano co-founded. The teens call when they are outside and leave the bags of groceries on a table in the lobby of the building for the seniors to pick up after they leave, in order to minimize the risk of coronavirus exposure for the seniors.

Dhruv Pai, 16, left, and Matthew Casertano, 15, both of North Potomac, Md., wipe down groceries with disinfectant as they deliver them to David Benkin, 85, and Rebecca Adler, 81, Wednesday Aug. 19, 2020, in North Bethesda, Md., as part of the nonprofit organization, “Teens Helping Seniors” that Pai and Casertano co-founded. The teens call when they are outside and leave the bags of groceries on a table in the lobby of the building for the seniors to pick up after they leave, in order to minimize the risk of coronavirus exposure for the seniors.
(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

“It also provided a way for us to feel like we were making a difference in the world at a time when this pandemic was sort of disconnecting us from everyone else,” he said.

Xu started raising money to buy masks in March, when supplies were scarce in the United States. Xu has relatives in China, a major manufacturer, and figured out that she could get quality masks from suppliers there at a good price. She found some whose products were approved by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and enlisted her Mandarin-speaking mother’s help to reach out to them.

Xu has so far has raised more than $23,000, which includes more than $12,000 from donations on her GoFundMe page, a $10,000 match from a company and $1,200 she contributed from her own savings. The 52,600 masks she’s purchased so far include surgical, FFP2 and three-layer varieties.

The first donation was in April to the UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, followed by another in June to the same hospital and to a homeless shelter, where staff and clients alike wear them.

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Dr. John Warner, executive vice president for health system affairs at UT Southwestern, said donations like Xu’s not only helped supplement their stock while the supply chain replenished, but also gave staff a much-needed morale boost.

Warner said it has been encouraging to see how many young people are pitching in times of crisis.

“They’re so bright and so innovative,” he said, “so that’s been very fun to watch.”