Volunteering during a pandemic isn’t easy. Programs have closed or minimized operations, limiting opportunities to help, while many volunteers stay home rather than risk spreading the virus.
But a few resilient high school students — motivated in part by idealism and a need to fulfill graduation requirements or to perfect college applications — have not given up. From starting community fridges to checking in with older people on the phone, here’s how several of them have helped their fellow New Yorkers this school year.
Amanda Cui, 17, Woodside, Queens
This year Amanda, a senior at Manhattan Hunter Science High School, had to go virtual with youth advocacy conferences, which she coordinated regularly for organizations like the Minkwon Center for Community Action and Chinatown Youth Initiatives. She also started discussions on organizing through TikTok and Instagram.
But she hit the streets, too. As part of a door-knocking campaign last summer in Flushing, Queens, that focused on tenants’ rights, Amanda collected testimony from residents to present at a community board meeting.
She was struck by the story she heard from one woman whose rent had increased exponentially on a unit that, unbeknown to her, was rent-stabilized. “It’s scary to knock on random people’s doors, but I learned that even immigrant communities like Flushing are affected by gentrification,” said Amanda, who is now working on bringing a community fridge to the neighborhood.
The people person
Amelia Jackson, 16, Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn
But when schools closed last spring, she shifted her focus to a different demographic. Now, she is working with the Neighbor Network, which connects volunteers with older New Yorkers to check if they have enough food or need any urgent help.
Amelia speaks regularly on the phone with a septuagenarian who lives alone in upstate New York.
“She talks about her mental health and what she’s doing to distract herself, while I talk about the classes and high school life, or what’s left of it,” said Amelia, who also volunteers with Be My Eyes, an app that connects individuals who are blind with people who can see and are willing to help them with everyday tasks.
“I’ve heard many accents from the South, and even some British,” Amelia said.
Sehajpreet Singh, 17, Bellerose Manor, Queens
Sehajpreet used to stock medical supplies and visit children with cardiac problems at Cohen Children’s Medical Center. But the pandemic shut down that opportunity.
So last June, Sehajpreet, a senior at Benjamin N. Cardozo High School in Bayside, Queens, started a small tutoring business with his friends. They donate 25 percent of the profits to nonprofits like Sense International India and the American Childhood Cancer Organization.
Then last fall, he volunteered on a phone bank before the November presidential election through the Sikh Coalition. By engaging with other Sikhs in states like Mississippi and Kentucky, he learned a lot more than whether or not they were headed for the polls.
“As a Sikh in New York, you are aware of racist behavior but nothing like what happens in other parts of the country,” Sehajpreet said. “Hearing stories from someone from the same culture and religion and how poorly they’ve been treated made me feel really sad. I haven’t experienced that here.”
Erica Schwartz, 16, East Hills, N.Y.
When the pandemic compromised some school-sponsored options, Erica decided to sell her unused clothing on Depop, a social shopping app, and donate half of the proceeds to poverty-relief organizations for Native Americans and Bronx residents.
Through her school, she also worked with Big & Mini, a service that connects students with older Americans for phone or video chats. “Everyone came out of their shell,” she said.
Lucky Ahmed, 15, Elmhurst, Queens
Lucky, a sophomore at the High School of Hospitality Management in Manhattan, admitted that he started volunteering because it’s a high school graduation requirement. But after spending some time with elementary students at a YMCA after-school program, he realized he enjoyed it.
“Now I like to volunteer when I can because it’s actually fun,” he said.
Last summer, Lucky also helped with a mural project through the South Asian Youth Action, a nonprofit, in an attempt to spruce up a pedestrian area in Jackson Heights, Queens. Mr. Ahmed said he focused all day on painting within the lines on his assigned portion of the piece.
“When the mural was finished, I couldn’t believe I had contributed to this beautiful thing,” he said. “So many restaurants and businesses are struggling in the area, so it was great that we were able to do something nice for the neighborhood.”