One late night in mid-March, Angelina Chin, Isha Rudramurthy, Claire Kang and Faith Lee — all Issaquah High School students — were rapidly sending texts back and forth about the coronavirus. Chin, a junior, had an idea: She wanted to raise $25,000 to procure 50,000 masks from a Chinese supplier she had worked with through the Issaquah Highlands Chinese Heritage Club, where she had been volunteering with her family to gather donations of personal protective equipment (PPE). She wanted to distribute them to local health care workers who were facing a shortage of PPE.
Schools had closed, classes were online and even with AP exam prep, students still had unstructured time. Some of their peers were not taking COVID-19 seriously, continuing to meet up in groups. Chin and her friends wanted to send a different message: that youth understand the gravity of the pandemic sweeping the world and have the power to mobilize.
They titled their initiative Washington Youth for Masks (WYM) and, in one month, amassed more than 200 student representatives who are spearheading their own community outreach and fundraising projects. One student representative is handcrafting friendship bracelets to contribute toward the $25,000 goal. Other projects include online tutoring to create community connections. While many students are from the Sammamish/Issaquah/Bellevue area, students from Shoreline, Tacoma and Chehalis have joined the growing initiative.
Chin, Lee, Kang and Rudramurthy say the idea behind WYM is not only about masks but about creating a network of young people who are contributing to the immediate needs of the community. “We have the privilege where we can sort of stay home and sit back. But we have frontline health care workers who are risking their lives and working around the clock to try to protect our community,” Kang said. “So, the least that we can do is sort of get together and start little projects or big ones to help give back to them.”
All four of the project’s leaders understood what COVID-19 means around the world. They have family from China, Korea and India and had heard about the virus and its effects from family even before COVID-19 took hold in the U.S. Kang says while she was aware of how serious the situation looked, she felt disconnected — until schools started closing and the effects of an omnipresent virus crept into her daily life.
Kang and Lee are seniors, and the pandemic upended the commemorative rites of passage every high schooler looks forward to: prom, graduation and the parties that follow have all been canceled. “At first I was really disappointed, and I was wondering why it had happened during our senior year,” Lee said.
Kang added: “It was a bummer at first, but seeing it now … worrying about graduation or prom is like the last thing in my mind now because we have so many other things.”
Lee, Rudramurthy, Kang and Chin started WYM after schools closed and before a remote education routine had set in. In that time, they created an organizational model and started to spread the word about their fundraising campaign on social media. Then, backlash started to come in, mostly from adults who probed the group about where the money would go and expressed doubts over whether the masks were safe. Ultimately, they were asking whether young people could be taken seriously at all.
“I think it’s totally understandable that they’re questioning it, but it was sort of hard to reply to those comments,” Lee said.
The group not only received skepticism from adults but from their own peers, some of whom wondered if the four students wanted to boost résumés and college admissions. “It was trying to push past those … misconceptions people might have in the beginning just because it was a group that was started by young people and it’s being carried out by young people,” Kang said.
Undeterred, they took this pressure as motivation to strengthen their work and prove their legitimacy, Chin said. They responded with FDA documentation that approved the masks and have posted all legal documents on their website. They gained traction with their peers through social media and found that young people around them were starting to change their attitudes about how to respond to COVID-19.
As more youth started to post messages like “stay home, save lives” to their peers and networks, the nonchalance began to taper off. “They take it more seriously just because we’re in the same age group,” Kang said.
Kang also noted that when educators incorporated current events in the classroom, young people felt more compelled to take community-wide action. She points to her AP government class in which an education about politics and leadership has helped her understand the complexities of COVID-19.
Social media, as controversial as it is, provides a virtual collaborative space for teens who would otherwise be organizing in hallways beside their lockers or around lunch tables in the cafeteria. “Especially since now we have a lot of free time and we spend a lot of it on social media or on our phones, if you just go on and see a bunch of your friends promoting like a cause or doing something to raise money like that, [it’s] an easy way for you to get involved,” Rudramurthy said.
To date, the group has donated 30,000 masks — over half of their goal. The efforts won’t stop even after hitting the 50,000 mark; they will continue the “developing youth initiative” toward mutual aid for communities impacted by COVID-19 as the world adjusts to a new kind of normal.
Among the things Chin, Kang, Rudramurthy and Lee said they would reflect on from this global shift are the privilege of education and the value of face-to-face interactions.
“Once we slowly start transitioning to our normal daily lives, I’ll not be taking these for granted,” Kang said. “I’ll also be able to recognize that youth can do things to help the community and make a big change if they all just come together.”
Kamna Shastri is a staff reporter covering narrative and investigative stories for Real Change. She has a background in community journalism. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @KShastri2
Read more in the May 13-19, 2020 issue.