I am a sophomore in Montgomery Blair High School, Silver Spring, MD.
I have been volunteering since I was 10 years old. Since then, giving back to my community has become a passion and an integral part of me. For the past few months of the COVID-19 crisis, I have been involved in voluntary efforts on two distinct fronts: leading our newly formed volunteer group effort called Teens Helping Seniors, and being a brand ambassador for Arts-n-STEM4Hearts. Through these efforts, I have witnessed the power of people -- young people--coming together, fueled by a shared passion, and making an impact on our community by joining forces to give back.
How has your life changed since the community has been impacted by Coronavirus?
COVID-19 has altered the course of my life in almost every way possible. My mom is a frontline physician and she is worried everyday that she will bring the virus home to us. We moved my elderly grandparents to an apartment close to where we live, since we did not want to get them sick as they are in the at-risk population. We have been taking extra precautions at home so that no one falls sick. It has not been easy. After a month or so of following a certain routine, we are adapting to a ‘new normal’ in our house.
Recently, the county announced that we would not be returning for in-person schooling for this academic year. Life has certainly impacted all students due to online instruction.
Are you working more or less?
School instruction has been varying with different courses. I have been working more in some courses due to lack of the traditional classroom setting. On the science front, I have been very busy with a number of presentations as all the science competitions have gone virtual. I got selected as a Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) finalist, and also got to represent Maryland for the National Junior Science and Humanities Symposium (JSHS) meeting for my research work on two different projects related to computer science and neuroscience, respectively.
On the volunteering front, I have been very involved in ‘Teens Helping Seniors ‘ which is a volunteer service I co-founded with my Montgomery Blair classmate Matthew Casertano. It started off with helping my grandparents and elderly neighbors in getting groceries, and we now have expanded to several chapters in the US and one even in Canada. I have been busier than before in leading these activities to help our seniors and spreading the word in our community. Through my work as a brand ambassador for Arts-n-STEM4Hearts, we have been distributing PPE and ‘bags of love’ kits to health care workers during the pandemic. This week we will be donating stress relief kits to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center front line workers.
What are you most afraid of?
It is difficult to put feelings into words, in part because of how many emotions there are to feel. The whole world feels as if it is crumbling and yet I am also experiencing extraordinary acts of kindness from the community.
I have wide-ranging fears due to the uncertainty of the situation. I am afraid that my elderly grandparents will fall sick. I am worried that my mom may bring the virus home that may affect us all. Unfortunately, there is no guidance we can seek from our elders on this, no manuals to read. We all are forced to take it one day at a time.
What are you most hopeful for?
I am hopeful that the COVID virus will be under control soon. For a virus we never knew existed five months ago, thanks to a huge effort of collecting data behind the scenes, we now know it almost molecule by molecule. However much we are hopeful for a vaccine and useful diagnostic or antibody tests, we are starting to have methods to control COVID-19 that we know can “flatten the curve”.
We also know a lot more about the kind of challenges there are ahead. For example, there is a prediction for resurgence of the disease in winter. I believe that even though it is such a scary thing, we can, if we have the will to do so, keep COVID-19 under control given all the information we have. That is no small achievement.
What has been the most challenging part of this experience for you?
The most challenging part of this experience has been loss of structure and daily routine. My ‘normal’ life before COVID was following the routine of getting up at a certain time, going to school and attending classes at specific times and coming home at a certain time. When schools closed, we were given the option to complete some assignments and were also told that it was up to us to decide if we wanted to complete them. At first, this greater amount of freedom and choice felt good – “Finally I get to decide what I want to do!” In a short time though, it has become easy to fall behind, to be distracted by other more desirable options (watching movies, video games, playing with cats, etc.) or to become bored.
I seriously miss social interactions with friends and teachers. I miss sitting with my group of friends and eating lunch together every day. In the hallways and classrooms of Blair, we are exposed to a variety of different cultures, perspectives and ways of living that are different from my own, and now I do not get that experience.
Extracurricular activities such as public speaking/debate and singing in the choir are important components of my identity. Though all my activities are online, it just does not feel the same.
Is there anything – even a tiny thing – you enjoy or like about sheltering in place?
Thanks to the shelter-in-place order, which has limited commuting to school on the beltway, and also for after-school activities. I now have several extra hours each day to use as I wish. I also do not have to wake up very early in the morning since my online classes start later in the morning.
What do you think society as a whole will learn from this experience?
Our society will have a greater respect for front-line workers: our doctors, nurses, pharmacists, teachers, caregivers, store clerks, utility workers, small-business owners and employees. Scientific experts are now on the front-lines just as generals took the lead in giving daily briefings during wars. Medical experts are at the microphone to explain complex ideas like pandemic curves and social distancing. Society will learn that healthcare professionals are perhaps the new wartime generals. In history, when all is said and done, they will be recognized for their sacrifice as true patriots; we will be saluting our doctors and nurses and other medical staff, and saying, “Thank you for your service,” as we now do for our military veterans.
How are you coping with stress/taking care of yourself?
I am connecting with my friends very frequently using Hangout, Zoom calls, and Facetime. I have been playing video games with them too.
Serving my two cats Kitkat and Snickers has always been a fun job and stress reliever for me :) My cats keep me busy and make sure I am not stressed; anytime I spend too much time on my computer, KitKat will come and sit on the keyboard. I am also getting a lot of time to exercise at home on my rowing machine, and to go on long walks/ runs while maintaining social distancing.
When future generations ask, what will you tell them about this time in your life?
I would tell them that pandemics such as COVID-19 show us how globally interconnected we are – there is no longer such a thing as isolated issues and actions. COVID times have shown how important it is for people in the coming decades to be able to understand this interrelatedness and navigate across geographic and mental borders, and leverage their diversity to work in a globally collaborative way.
Most importantly, these experiences of isolation and remote learning away from peers, teachers and classrooms has served as a cautious reminder of the importance of our human need for face-to-face social interaction, and to not take it for granted.
What would you like your friends and neighbors in Silver Spring/Montgomery County to know?
While we follow the necessary social distancing protocols in place, there are ways we can continue to safely help our communities during these trying times. I would like to use this platform to spread the word about the two volunteer organizations that I have been involved with. ‘Teens Helping Seniors’ which has over 200 volunteers serving seniors and vulnerable population in our county during this crisis. I would like to encourage more volunteers to join us in these efforts to help our community by signing up on our website at https://teenshelpingseniors.org or by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Arts-n-STEM4Hearts is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that is donating food to local food banks, completing art projects for local nursing homes and collecting items for health care workers on the front lines. We can be reached either at https://arts-n-stem4hearts.org or by email at email@example.com. We can all continue to make a difference – all while staying healthy and helping to slow the spread of COVID-19.