Keeping in Touch

Two UT students are working to bridge the gap between seniors and younger generations during the pandemic.

By Emily Caldwell

From the July/August 2020 issue of the Alcalde

he little camera light at the top of the computer flickers green, and the video on the screen focuses to show two people, generations apart, smiling back at each other. On one end of the call is a woman with gray hair sitting in a senior-living home; on the other, a UT Austin student sit-ting in her childhood bedroom. They’re logged into their weekly meeting to talk about anything and everything—family, hobbies, the pandemic.

These two unlikely friends are part of Big & Mini, a platform built by two UT Austin students that virtually connects young volunteers with the elderly community to combat feelings of isolation during the COVID -19 pandemic. Think of it as an online, instantaneous pen pal service.

“What you see here today is our best effort at using technology to shrink the generational divide into a small crack,” reads the Big & Mini website. The service is the brainchild of engineering sophomores Aditi Merchant and Allen Zhou, and his 17-year-old brother Anthony. They dreamed up the program in March after the university and K-12 schools throughout Texas closed and shifted to online classes due to the COVID -19 outbreak.

“We felt helpless,” says Allen, who met Mer-chant in math class on the first day of school their freshman year at UT. “We didn’t know what we could do. We couldn’t donate money, we had none of that, but what we could donate was time.”

According to data collected by The New York Times, the deaths of nursing home residents or workers account for one-third of all U.S. coronavirus deaths. As nursing homes all over the country began to close en masse in response to the spread of the coronavirus, Merchant, who is a Forty Acres Scholar, says she was inspired by the efforts people were making to keep in touch with their elderly loved ones while social distancing.

“I saw a lot of articles about people coming up to windows at nursing homes or at their grandparents’ house and putting up little notes or doing sweet things like that,” she says. “And then it was just a matter of like, if this is what people are having to do in order to connect with these people, then there really should be an easier way to go about doing this.”

The way it works is simple. Users sign up at bigandmini.com and answer a few questions, including fun ones like what fictional character they’d be. From there, Bigs (the seniors) are automatically matched with their Minis (the younger volunteers) based on their mutual interests. Big & Mini then schedules an hour-long video chat for the pair. If the Bigs and Minis enjoy talking, the chat is scheduled for the same time and day each week.

Merchant says their program is growing quickly. At press time, the platform had nearly 400 users. And they’re not all in Texas—participants from over 34 states are registered on the platform. The next challenge in their pairing process is coordinating meeting times for Bigs and Minis in different time zones. “We didn’t think about it until someone started tuning in an hour late,” Allen says with a laugh.

Unfortunately, operating a matching and scheduling service like this isn’t cheap. As Big & Mini continues growing and hits 1,000 users, they estimate they will spend about $500 or more a month. Merchant says they were thrilled to receive official 501(c)(3) status in May, though it cost them another $600 to file and register with the IRS. And as they bring on more engineers to help, ideally the founders would like to start paying them. “It’s tough because we’re in college,” he says.

Despite the costs, Merchant, Allen, and Anthony emphasize the importance of the connections Big & Mini fosters, and how rewarding it is to see the group’s hard work pay off. Anthony says hearing people’s feedback fuels them.

As the platform continues to grow, Big & Mini is publishing volunteer testimonials for potential new participants to check out on their web-site. One Mini, UT English sophomore Avery Gann sums it up well: “Signing up for Big & Mini was by far the best decision I have made during the [pandemic]—other than washing my hands, of course,” she says. “I’ve only been involved with the nonprofit for a month but the impact it has already made on me has been incredibly positive and such a strong light during these hard times.”

The founders plan to continue growing the program even after the pandemic ends. Allen says loneliness and isolation aren’t problems that are new or just go away.

“I think this is something that we definitely want to keep going even after this pandemic ends, just because the more we do it, the more we realize that this was something that was necessary long before the pandemic started,” Merchant says. “Continuing it would be some-thing that would just be beneficial to everyone.”

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