Teen Nonprofits Find Solutions during Covid-19 Pandemic

By Anvitha Reddy, Charlotte Heuser, and Emma Dircks

Pho­to Cred­it: The Young-ish Entre­pre­neurs by SDI Productions/Getty Images

In the mid­dle of a Covid-19 lock­down packed with dis­tance learn­ing dif­fi­cul­ties, teach­ers at the Schmal­ka­lden Ele­men­tary School in Thuringia, Ger­many, learned that the dig­i­tal tool they had been using didn’t meet the country’s strict data-pri­va­cy restric­tions. “A par­ent at the school asked whether I could devel­op a pro­gram from scratch over the week­end,” said Math­ias Wick­en­hagen, a 20-year-old pro­gram­mer in the neigh­bor­hood. “And I did.”

TaskCards, the online plat­form that Wick­en­hagen devel­oped, is a dig­i­tal pin board inspired by Padlet. Orig­i­nal­ly intend­ed as a quick save for just a few teach­ers in east­ern Ger­many, TaskCards has become wide­ly pop­u­lar through­out Europe.

Across the world, Chloe Yan, a 17-year-old Cal­i­forn­ian, walked into her com­put­er sci­ence class in 2019 and noticed the absence of girls. The lack of sup­port inspired her to find a com­mu­ni­ty, so she joined Girl­Ge­nius, an entire­ly vir­tu­al inter­na­tion­al non­prof­it that con­nects young women inter­est­ed in STEM fields (sci­ence, tech­nol­o­gy, engi­neer­ing and math) through pan­els, work­shops, and an online mag­a­zine. Since then, she has become exec­u­tive direc­tor of the magazine.

While these inter­na­tion­al non­prof­its have been thriv­ing in vir­tu­al set­tings, the world is slow­ly approach­ing a post-pan­dem­ic era. In antic­i­pa­tion of that day, these orga­ni­za­tions plan to adapt just as quick­ly to in-per­son activ­i­ties as they adapt­ed to the dig­i­tal realm, all in order to bet­ter serve their communities.

Up until now, TaskCards has sole­ly oper­at­ed vir­tu­al­ly – after all, it was cre­at­ed as a result of the switch to online learn­ing. With­out it, teach­ers would have had to deliv­er paper hand­outs to their stu­dents’ doorsteps. Since his own school expe­ri­ence wasn’t long ago, Wick­en­hagen under­stood what teach­ers and their stu­dents need­ed in order to learn from a dis­tance. And he sees that their inter­est in dig­i­tal solu­tions remains – even as schools reopen. “We weren’t inter­est­ed in prof­it­ing from data col­lec­tion or turn­ing a huge prof­it,” Wick­en­hagen said. “From the start, this was meant to help teach­ers and stu­dents. We want to tai­lor TaskCards to meet their needs, to make it a real­ly use­ful tool.”

For Girl­Ge­nius, which is based in the Unit­ed States and serves girls around the world, the pan­dem­ic caused no sig­nif­i­cant harm. Rather, the orga­ni­za­tion saw stay-at-home orders as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to start new ini­tia­tives. Girl­Ge­nius has host­ed about 40 online events, with its sum­mer 2020 STEAM con­fer­ence draw­ing more than 2,000 par­tic­i­pants. The orga­ni­za­tion has also devel­oped tech­ni­cal work­shops in ani­ma­tion, pan­els with women in STEM fields, and “Ask Me Any­thing” ses­sions with women who are well estab­lished in STEM. All of these vir­tu­al events were launched in response to increased online activ­i­ty because of the pan­dem­ic. But as schools and pub­lic places around the world open up, non­prof­its that oper­ate entire­ly vir­tu­al­ly face a new chal­lenge: keep­ing their momen­tum going now that peo­ple are return­ing to local, in-per­son resources.

The founders of Coro­na School recent­ly decid­ed to rename their orga­ni­za­tion Lern-Fair (Learn-Fair in Eng­lish) in response to the move­ment back to in-per­son activ­i­ties. More than 15,000 vol­un­teers are today help­ing to increase non­prof­it sup­port for their com­mu­ni­ties. (A quick aside: For any­one inter­est­ed in the recent­ly launched spe­cial ini­tia­tive to help Ukrain­ian refugees in learn­ing and/or improv­ing their Ger­man, check out this web­site.

Mean­while, TaskCards is catch­ing on across Europe, with licens­ing requests from Aus­tria to Fin­land and the Unit­ed King­dom. In the U.S., Girl­Ge­nius is seek­ing to turn its vir­tu­al mag­a­zine into a print pub­li­ca­tion as phys­i­cal libraries reopen their doors. Oth­er non­prof­its are look­ing ahead to a post-pan­dem­ic era, too. Tele­men­tors, a Texas-based orga­ni­za­tion cre­at­ed by high school­ers Amruth Nan­dish and Saath­wik Sal­a­di dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, con­nects chil­dren of health­care work­ers to stu­dent men­tors. Now the group is expand­ing ser­vices to oth­er chil­dren with an eye to a post-pan­dem­ic world. Afghan refugees and young can­cer patients are just two groups it has tar­get­ed. “Mem­bers of the Afghani nation­al army and their kids have to flee the coun­try for dif­fer­ent polit­i­cal rea­sons, so we start­ed offer­ing ses­sions to their kids,” said Nan­dish, 17-year-old founder and direc­tor of Tele­men­tors. “Also, chil­dren with can­cer are always in some iso­la­tion – post-Covid, pre-Covid, and dur­ing Covid. If they got that inter­ac­tion with a teenage men­tor, that would bring some light into their day, so that’s what our next ven­ture is.”

Even before the pan­dem­ic, teenagers pro­posed unique solu­tions to solv­ing prob­lems in their com­mu­ni­ties. As vac­ci­na­tion rates increase and insti­tu­tions find ways to pro­vide in-per­son expe­ri­ences, teenagers are equip­ping their orga­ni­za­tions to tack­le these changes and serve the pub­lic in new ways.

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Anvitha Red­dy is a senior at the Texas Acad­e­my of Math­e­mat­ics and Sci­ence in Den­ton, Texas. She’s cur­rent­ly a Copy Editor/Page Design­er for the North Texas Dai­ly. Besides jour­nal­ism, she enjoys spend­ing time con­duct­ing research in an inor­gan­ic chem­istry lab­o­ra­to­ry and being on the school debate team.

Char­lotte Heuser, 17, is a bilin­gual Ger­man-Amer­i­can born and raised in Ham­burg. She likes to trav­el and hopes to study abroad after com­plet­ing an inter­na­tion­al B.A.degree in 2023. Apart from writ­ing, Char­lotte is inter­est­ed in cul­ture and pol­i­tics and enjoys play­ing soccer.

Emma Dircks is 18 years old and a high-school senior in Ham­burg, Ger­many. She grew up bilin­gual and lived in Ire­land for 10 years before mov­ing back to Germany.