OMEGA Scholarship Winners

by Adam Felts

Below are profiles of the 2020 OMEGA scholarship winners and their successful intergenerational programs. For a list of all past winners, click here.

Benjamin Burns, 17, GenLynk, Winchester High School, Winchester, MA

After volunteering at a senior center event making crafts in the fall of 2018, Ben realized that he had a lot more in common with older adults than he thought. A couple years later, when the global COVID-19 pandemic hit, Ben saw a statistic claiming that the majority of those living in nursing homes were likely to experience loneliness. To reach out to older adults that he saw as being in need, he created a way for volunteers to call and talk to seniors at his local senior living community. However, every time a volunteer called, they would be placed with a different older adult. Ben decided he would pair seniors and volunteers together to forge longer-term relationships, an idea that would grow into an organization called GynLink. GenLynk aims to connect seniors and community members, including high school students, together to foster friendly relationships.

Interested volunteers can sign up on GenLynk’s website and indicate their preferred mode of communication and how much time they can commit to the program. They are then matched with a compatible senior. Speaking about her experience in the program, one of Gynlink’s participants said, “I enjoyed talking to my "buddy" so much that I couldn't wait to speak with her again.”

Since March 2020, GenLynk has paired 25-30 volunteers with seniors. Ben has an ambitious vision for the organization and hopes to expand that number further once GenLynk becomes a nonprofit organization. Future plans also include incorporating high-acuity matching of volunteers and seniors based off of criteria such as mutual interests.

Olivier Mastey, Intergenerational Chess Program, DOROT, The Leffell School, Hartsdale, NY

Olivier grew up a big fan of chess. During his freshman year of high school, he describes himself as a very busy student trying to get involved in everything. When he learned about DOROT’s after-school intergenerational chess program, it seemed like a perfect fit for him. “I didn’t know what it was going to be like, playing chess with senior citizens, but I ended up liking it and talking with people, and I never looked back.” DOROT is a nonprofit organization whose focus is to address the social isolation experienced by older adults through diverse programs and services, with a special focus on creating intergenerational connections. Olivier became further involved in DOROT while completing an internship as part of his senior year coursework at The Leffell School in Hartsdale, NY.

When COVID-19 hit, Olivier helped transition the chess program to an online format. As Patricia Cipora Harte, Director of DOROT Westchester explained, “Olivier was instrumental in taking the program and making it happen on Zoom. He contacted all of the older adults, over 20 people, and spoke with them about moving the program to the computer and then helped anyone who was interested in putting the Zoom app on their device and then teaching them to use it.” Olivier recalls the different ways that the participants transitioned to playing online. “Some participants would play one another through chess.com. But for folks unfamiliar with the platform, we would have participants get their own boards out on their own, position their cameras, and they’d tell each other to move each other’s pieces.” Olivier is confident DOROT will have no shortage of interest in the program. He hopes future students at Leffell consider completing their senior-year internship with the organization.

To learn more about DOROT, please visit: https://www.dorotusa.org/our-programs/in-westchester/intergenerational-after-school-chess

Russell Yang, 17, Tech Literacy for Seniors, Engage STEM, The Harker School, Los Altos Hills, CA

Russell loves education – he is a teaching assistant at his local community college. Driven by his passion for instruction, Russell started a free program in his local town hall in California in May 2018 after he saw that his grandparents needed support in learning how to use their technological devices. The program allowed seniors to come with their devices, learn more about them, and troubleshoot issues. Two years later, Tech Literacy for Seniors, a chapter-based, student-led initiative, became one of several activities at Engage STEM, Russell’s 501c(3) nonprofit organization. Tech Literacy for Seniors currently has several student-led chapters across the United States, including a chapter in Mumbai, India.

Students are able to start a chapter of Tech Literacy for Seniors or Engage STEM in their own communities. Interested applicants apply through Engage STEM’s website. Once the chapter is established, Russell provides basic set-up training and materials, course guides, and social media outreach. Each chapter can choose a curriculum that they feel is best for their participants and community. Some current chapters host one-on-one tech training sessions with older adults while others do larger topic courses or workshops. As an older adult participant from Russell’s chapter described, “I found that Russell and the other student volunteers he recruited not only answered the questions I came with to our sessions but went beyond that to show me shortcuts and new apps on my laptop and phone with which I was not familiar. Russell even offered to make a video to teach my aerobics students how to download and use Zoom so we could exercise online during the pandemic.”

Tech Literacy for Seniors has continued its work virtually during COVID-19. Beyond Tech Literacy for Seniors, Engage STEM has over 25 chapters around the world. Russell’s future plans for the organization include offering support and technological help to seniors who live in underserved communities through expanding additional chapters of Tech Literacy for Seniors in these communities.

To learn more, visit: engagestem.org/tech

Follow Engage STEM on Instagram: @engagestem

Finn Harrington, 18, and Andrew Barry, 18, Golden Dawgs Club, Noble and Greenough School, Dedham, MA

Finn and Drew come from a long legacy of intergenerational programming at their high school. The Golden Dawgs Club began in 2014 under the direction of Caroline Collins-Pisano, a former MIT AgeLab summer intern and OMEGA Scholarship winner, and Linda Hurley, Nobles’ Community Service Coordinator. As Finn described, “Our objective [of the Golden Dawgs] is to create local events in our community that get students involved in community service, but also engage older adults.” Both Finn and Drew became involved with the organization early on in their time at Nobles. Drew said about his exposure to the program, “My mom really encouraged me to focus on community service my freshman year. I went to a Golden Dawgs event early on and I got involved in the program. We [Drew and Finn] fell in love with creating the TGIF Open Painting Studios, musicals, and luncheon events.” Said Finn, “My older sister is very good friends with Caroline, who was hosting the first of the early open painting studios. My sister convinced me to go with her and I really fell in love with the idea of the entire mission of the organization. I felt like I really had a connection to the older adults I met.”

Some of the same older adults attend the events, they said, providing an opportunity to get to know them personally. “It becomes evident how much the Golden Dawgs enjoy it, and it’s a lot of fun to brainstorm and come up with new ways to have them visit campus,” Finn said. Finn and Drew also say the support of their teachers and other school faculty are instrumental in keeping the Club going. When it became apparent the activities and visits would be suspended due to COVID-19, Drew and Finn shifted into starting a friendly phone call tree. They were worried students might be hunkered down in quarantine, but much to their surprise, an unexpected number of students volunteered to call Golden Dawgs.

Andrew Barry will be a rising freshman this year at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. Finn Harrington will be a rising freshman this year at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.