COVID-19 has upended the lives of teenagers around the world: remote school, separation from friends, longtime rites of passage like graduations and proms postponed or held virtually.
But a group of more than two dozen Boston-area teenagers has met the moment in a philanthropic way. They’re part of the COVID-19 Youth Commission (CYC), an application-only group of civic-minded teens driving change, outreach and activism throughout the Boston area through volunteering at food pantries, assembling COVID-19 care kits for homeless shelters and developing advocacy skills through education.
CYC is a partnership between Hebrew College and the Center for Teen Empowerment. The group meets weekly for learning sessions hosted by COVID-19 experts. These include infectious disease physicians and activists from We Got Us, a group that connects Black people with trusted Black health care providers and students to address medical racism.
Teens like Daisy Ogbesoyen, 16, work up to 20 hours per month. Ogbesoyen is a sophomore at Boston Latin Academy. She is part of the CYC advocacy team, recruiting volunteers for food pantry shifts and sharing information with family and friends about how pantries work in an effort to de-stigmatize their use.
“With COVID, volunteer numbers at pantries have dropped, and a lot of work needs to be done. I’m encouraging youth to volunteer with food pantries and showing them how to help in their community,” she says. She works with Malden’s Bread of Life pantry; her next shift is this weekend.
She’s also been able to present her own chosen topics to the group, including a recent session on self-care, which she says has led to personal discovery.
“COVID has impacted me a lot. I’ve been inside, confined, not able to exercise as much or to go out. I presented on self-care, explained its importance and really found out things about myself. If I struggled with COVID, I couldn’t imagine people who were in harder situations—so I wanted to do something current and relevant, and use it to help others,” she says.
Sivan Kotler-Berkowitz is a 16-year-old student at Gann Academy in Waltham who is passionate about food insecurity, social justice issues and combatting racism. He appreciates the CYC programming, in which students learned about medical racism, disproportionate rates of infection among certain ethnic groups and the difficulty of equitably distributing vaccines.
“I’m passionate about social justice work, and if we’re in a position to help, we should. There often aren’t opportunities like this for teens to serve their communities and learn,” he says. “As a white person, it’s crucial for me to know about these inequities. I’m not often taught about that, and I’m in a position to help.”
He believes that Judaism plays a role in his outlook, because it teaches “treating people with respect and kindness,” he says. “If I were in this situation, I’d want people to help me.”
Students will work on service projects until June. To learn more about their efforts, follow them on Instagram.