By Jameson Cohen
New York City, New York
When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit New York in March, I naively expected the worst part of the crisis for my family and me to be the cancellation of my plans to explore colleges and attend pre-season baseball. It took only a week or so before I realized it was a much more pervasive and devastating tragedy that would forever change how I viewed the world and my place in it. I felt compelled to replace some of the fear and sadness with action, to do something besides worry passively. I reached out to various places where I have helped out in recent years, including food pantries, assisted living homes, hospitals, daycare facilities, and resource-challenged schools. None of them were permitted to let me in. I felt like there had to be more that I could do, and many of my friends felt the same way.
One morning in early April, my mother and I were discussing the effects of the virus and how hard it must be for the families of medical professionals and other essential workers to look after their children without caregivers or schools, while performing their jobs. It occurred to me that families needed more than virtual school. They needed virtual caregivers, friends, and all-around helpers for their children. That is how Circle of Friends began.
Circle of Friends is a completely free, volunteer effort that pairs high school students of all different backgrounds, talents, and interests, with equally diverse children around the world. While we originally were all from NYC private schools, such as Hewitt, Riverdale, Spence, and Trinity, we now have volunteers from all over the country and some from as far as Europe.
When signing up, parents complete a simple Google Form to let us know their preferred times and what they need or want us to do with their children, and we find the high school student best equipped to engage with them. Our volunteers have strengths that include art, music, foreign languages, computers, and sports. We are willing to play games, create art projects, exercise, dance, practice reading, act out plays, help with homework, and put together special presents and events. If it can be done well virtually, we will find a way to make it happen!
Within days of our initial launch, doctors, police officers, therapists, and nurses were signing up their children. We learned almost immediately that parents from all walks of life could benefit from a helping hand with their children, even if it was a virtual one. At our almost weekly volunteer meetings, we hear one person after the next describe how special their meetings are and how much they have helped them weather the current crisis. I have been meeting with three siblings from Tennessee every week since mid-April, and it is always one of the most enjoyable and rewarding parts of my week. The relationship I have formed with them through our common love of sports, games, and Disney movies is a special bond I will cherish long after life returns to normal.
This past summer, we launched a new effort, the Circle of Friends Virtual Camp, which was incredibly successful, with over 100 families signing their children up! The camp ran for two weeks, from August 17th to August 28th, and consisted of two age groups, Senior Camp (ages 9-12) and Junior Camp (ages 4-8) and five programs for campers to choose to participate in (Game Design/Introductory Coding in Scratch, Arts and Crafts, Music, Math, and Sports/Exercise). Best of all, the camp was completely free for all families who participated! We were so happy to be able to give the children we work with an opportunity to not only interact with their high-school-aged counselors, but also with other children their age from all over the country.
Over the last several months, we have grown to more than 60 volunteers, and we have hosted meetings with even more families, often establishing standing meetings with the same children that occur anywhere from one to four times a week. We continue to reach out to friends, teachers, hospitals, and service organizations all over the country, asking them to spread our mission to deliver smiles, friendship, and support from a safe distance. Thanks to WE Charity, we were able to spread the word about our work even further through a podcast and a video conference interview alongside Bryan Cranston and Dr. Amy Cranston. Additionally, thanks to the work of one of our amazing volunteers, we have partnered with Microsociety and the Boys Club of New York, with whom we work to virtually support young students in reading, art, chess, and other educational and extracurricular activities.
This school year, we have introduced a brand new program—the Circle of Friends Homework Hotline. Our goal for the hotline is to provide students everywhere the chance to call in and seek academic help from experienced tutors on any school night. Whether they are having trouble solving a math problem or answering a history prompt, or if they just want to go over something they didn’t understand from class, our volunteers are there to answer their questions and guide them through their difficulties. We hope that, by providing this service to students everywhere, they will be able to go into their classes more confidently and the horrible familial and social effects of the pandemic will not strip them of the opportunity to find help with their academics.
We are so pleased and honored to know that we have been able to positively impact families in this difficult time. If anyone reading this article would like to help our efforts, we would greatly appreciate it if you would connect us with families or organizations who could benefit from our services. Additionally, we always welcome new volunteers who would like to get involved in our work. I am so grateful to all the volunteers, parents, teachers, and families, and organizations who have helped us become what we are today, and I cannot wait to see how Circle of Friends continues to grow and develop long after this horrible pandemic is over.