By: Gabriella Alleyne
This issue’s Girl of the Month is Christine Xu. She is a sophomore at The Chapin School and is the Founder and President of Gens Connect. Gens Connect connects teens and senior citizens through phone calls to help them with social isolation and promotes bonding between the generations. Below is the interview I had with Christine.
What is Gens Connect?
Basically, Gens Connect is a volunteer program that pairs high school students with senior citizens to help alleviate the boredom, loneliness, and sometimes depression that can come with social isolation. I started it because I wanted to promote intergenerational bonding too because I feel like there is a pretty big gap between Generation Z and the older generations.
How do the volunteers and the seniors connect?
Volunteers call the seniors every week. The first call they just get to know each other, asking what they like, what they don’t like, etc. At first it’s a bit awkward, but by the second call basically all of the volunteers say that the senior has opened up a lot more and they usually lead conversations.
We are also trying to expand. As of right now we have only been doing phone calls, but I’m hoping we can move on to video calls soon, so we can do more activities with the seniors. We were thinking you can draw with your senior, read the same book together, bake or cook something, and stuff like that.
How can seniors sign up for this or do you find the seniors?
Currently I find the seniors. I sent out a bunch of emails to basically every senior center in New York City asking if this is something they would be interested in or if they want to work with me. We’ve only been working with senior centers so far. I’m hoping to expand Gens Connect and give individual seniors a chance to sign up, but it is a bit difficult because there are a lot of liability issues, and you don’t really know what kind of person the senior is.
How do you accommodate seniors who speak little to no English?
All of the volunteers fill out a little form with questions that help me make the pairs. One of the questions asks if the volunteer speaks any language besides English, and if so, how comfortable they are speaking it. Most of the time the volunteer won’t be a hundred percent fluent, but good enough in the language that they can understand it and speak.
Where did you find volunteers?
When I was first recruiting volunteers, I made a poster using Canva and posted it on my Instagram story. I was kind of just saying oh this is what it is, this is why you should join, and if you want to join contact me here. It was really cool because I got a lot of people who wanted to volunteer within the first day. Within a week I had 20 to 30 volunteers already. After I get a volunteer I would ask them to ask their friends to join too.
How can people sign up to volunteer for Gens Connect?
We have a website called gensconnect.com, there’s a “get involved” tab and it has a button that is linked to a google form. And basically, if you’re not a Chapin student you need to get a recommendation letter from a faculty member, so we know that you are dedicated to helping us. You also fill out questions like your hobbies and general information as well as a very short essay about why you want to volunteer with us. I use all that information to find a senior who I think matches the best and then you get paired up. After that, you will usually make the first call with one of the staff members from the senior center so that you and the elder can get acquainted and the staff member can introduce you two. And then from then on you just call them every week. We also have the volunteers input every time they call into a spreadsheet, so we can keep track of everything.
Who helped you during your process to start Gens Connect?
My mom gave me some pointers when I first started communicating back and forth with interested senior centers. Because I’m a generally introverted person, I was not really good at communicating with people at first. I was always like, “ oh what should I say back” so my mom would just help me be more professional with the senior centers.
What difficulties did you face while starting Gens Connect, and how did you overcome them?
It was actually a bit difficult finding seniors who wanted to participate because it was a really long process to actually find seniors. We are still in the process with one of the senior centers. The senior centers have to call each individual senior and explain the program to them and ask them if they want to join. And then we have to go through screening with them and I have to ask the seniors, “what do you like to do”, “what do you like to talk about”, and then I get to pair them. It is a long process. That was basically the biggest difficulty.
What have been your successes during your process of creating and leading Gens Connect?
Probably my biggest success was that I got so many volunteers so quickly. And also everyone who wanted to volunteer is super nice and it was really awesome getting to know everybody. We also have a groupchat with all of the volunteers where they can all get to know each other and we’ve actually become really close friends. Also, we currently have I think 9 volunteers that are talking to seniors and it’s going really well. Sometimes the pairing works out super well and the two people find things in common that they never would have known before.
Do only the volunteers talk to the seniors or do you talk to them as well?
I also talk to the seniors. I actually have two buddies because we have more Mandarin speaking seniors then we have Mandarin speaking volunteers, so I have two Mandarin speaking buddies. One of them, her name is Suzie, she’s from Taiwan. She was a Real Estate Agent when she was younger and my mom is a Real Estate Agent. Her husband, who passed away recently, was an NYU professor and both of my parents went to NYU for Grad school. So it was kind of funny seeing that we had that in common. My other senior buddy is named Abraham, he only speaks Mandarin and very very very little English. He named himself after Abraham Lincoln after he came to the US, which was cool.
How has been your experience interacting with the seniors?
It’s actually really interesting. At first when I was calling every senior for the initial screening so I could pair them up it was a bit awkward. Especially if the senior was Chinese because my Chinese is not very good so it was a bit awkward at first. But now every time I call, my senior buddies are like “oh hi Christine!” And I’m like “oh hi!” And then they kind of lead the conversation a lot and it’s just very fun talking to them every week. They seem very happy to have someone to talk to. At least Suzie always tells me thank you for calling. It’s just really fun.
What did you learn about yourself during this process?
I always knew I liked helping people and volunteering and stuff, but I didn’t think I would be able to actually get something like this going. At first, I was thinking about it because I was reading an article in the New York Times about seniors being very isolated during Coronavirus and also my grandparents live in China and they’re all kind of alone. Because of this I was already thinking about doing something to help seniors in isolation. And so I kind of just went for it and learned there’s nothing to lose. I sent out a bunch of emails to the senior centers and when I actually started getting responses I was like “ok we’re actually doing this now”. So, I’m surprised I was able to execute it because it is going pretty well.
How do you see Gens Connect growing in the next year, 2 years, maybe 5 years?
I definitely want Gens Connect to continue after the Coronavirus pandemic because even though it started to help seniors feel less isolated, I think it also helped both sides in general. The seniors get someone to talk to because most of them live alone, and the only people they talk to on a regular basis are the people that they see at the senior center. And if they have some younger person to talk to they can learn more about our generation. For the volunteers, they get to listen to the seniors’ amazing life stories and also solicit life advice from their buddies.I think in the next year I want to start sending letters back and forth with the seniors too, like a pen pal situation. I’m also trying to plan a bunch of field trips to the senior centers. Once Coronavirus is over, we’re going to go meet the seniors in person. In five years I’ll be in college by then, so I’m not really sure if I’ll still be able to lead it as well as I do now, but I might pass down the leadership to someone else.
Follow Christine and Gens Connect if you would like to know more about her journey, on Instagram @Christine.j.xu and @gens_connect and on her website gensconnect.com
I hope you enjoyed this issue’s Girl of the Month. Please leave any comments you have below and don’t forget to like and subscribe to this magazine.
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