When the novel coronavirus shutdown struck in March, East Bay teens Carolyn Considine and Isabella Capelli could no longer visit with the low-income seniors they’d been teaching English.
So, like many, they moved their classes online.
"It worked so well that we figured we could expand this and help other teens find meaningful activities that normally wouldn’t be available to them," says Considine, 16, a rising sophomore at Campolindo High School who lives in Lafayette.
Along with Isabella’s sister Aria, the duo founded Meaningful Teens, an organization that matches teen volunteers with programs teaching English as a second language to children and adults who are immigrants, refugees, asylum speakers and others.
Since May, the organization has grown to more than 200 volunteers, many of them in the Bay Area but some from as far away as Texas and Georgia. Their students come from Oakland, Pennsylvania, East Africa, Ukraine and beyond.
"In the beginning, it was difficult for us to find volunteer activities that would work with us because we’re teenagers. Some require volunteers to be over 18 or 21," says Capelli, 16, a rising junior at San Ramon Valley High School in Danville. But Meaningful Teens has worked with organizations to lower their age requirement to 14.
They train other teen volunteers through a Zoom orientation and provide a curriculum for the English classes. No previous experience teaching English is required. Classes themselves also take place over Zoom, using breakout rooms.
"It’s a very rewarding experience," says Capelli. "Everyone honestly is having a good time."
While the COVID-19 pandemic has suspended normal life for many teens, Considine is able to find silver linings.
"Online volunteering has become the new normal, and it’s so much easier" because it can provide flexible scheduling and eliminates transportation and traffic hassles, she says. "We’ve grown our reach and have a much bigger following now that it’s online. … We really want to continue this, even after COVID."
The organization is hoping to expand, with chapters in different states.
"It’s a great way to bring people together during COVID. … It allows students to reach out to other people all over the world they couldn’t connect with before," Considine adds. "You can be at home and still make a difference. COVID isn’t as limiting as it seems."
For more information, visit meaningfulteens.org.