Sometimes all it takes is a teenager with a can-do attitude to get an ambitious volunteer program off the ground.
At the beginning of this year, Kate Becker, a rising junior at Princeton High School, was developing a program in coordination with the Princeton Children’s Fund and Princeton Public Library that would teach kids how to refurbish donated computers that they could then take home and use.
When COVID-19 and stay-at-home orders put that project, titled Princeton Community Connection, on hold, Becker pivoted. With school taking place virtually and people largely confined to their homes, Becker says, “I realized I really missed those single interactions with people you don’t know very well but you see them in the hallway. I felt like there were definitely other kids who felt like this.”
“I think that one of the hardest things for the students has been that loss of social interaction and connection,” Becker says, noting that loss is especially difficult for special education students who are accustomed to being surrounded by a team of professionals and para-professionals. “All of it went away like this,” Becker said of their support system.
It occurred to her that those one-off interactions could be turned into meaningful friendships if students were paired one-on-one for regular, informal conversations in a virtual setting. The idea for Kids2Kids was born.
Becker took her idea to Felicia Spitz, a co-founder and co-president of the nonprofit Princeton Children’s Fund. The five-year-old all-volunteer organization is dedicated to providing access to enrichment and extracurricular opportunities for students otherwise unable to afford them. Becker was familiar with the Princeton Children’s Fund’s work because her older sister, Emily, had worked with them to create the Princeton Youth Swim Initiative, which offered swimming lessons to at-risk youth.
Kate Becker’s conversation with Spitz led to the question of “who needs this the most?” which in turn led to a connection with Princeton’s Special Education PTO.
She was soon paired with a buddy for regular chats using the Zoom conferencing app. “It’s super fun,” she says. “We do a bunch of arts and crafts, we talk about her day, her vacations, what she’s doing.” Plans are in the works for a visit to Shake Shack once social distancing restrictions are lifted.
“Once I had this connection I thought, why not expand this to other people?” Becker says. “Wouldn’t other people like to be a partner?”
While Becker describes the process of developing the Kids2Kids program as “sending a few emails,” Spitz explains it was a much more involved operation.
“Kate partnered with a group of kids, a club that had already been working with Princeton Special Sports,” Spitz says. “They came up with an entire process, outreach materials, and flyers.”
They also connected with Dr. Andrea Dinan, the Princeton School District’s director of service learning and experiential programs who runs the IDEAS tutoring center at the high school. Dinan helped the group develop communications materials.
The students came up with suggestions for starting a conversation with a stranger over Zoom. They created lists of things to do and things to talk about and made cue cards containing fun conversation prompts. “Which wild animal would you like to keep and tame as a pet?,” for example, and “would you rather”-style questions.
From Spitz’s perspective, having a student-led program is a huge benefit for Princeton Children’s Fund. “A part of what Princeton Children’s Fund wants to do is to support economically disadvantaged students in the public and charter schools in Princeton, and part of it is to create opportunities for that thought and that hope to become the culture in town so that we’re raising the next generation of people who are going to reach out a hand to help out.”
A solid dose of youthful optimism also helps. “Adults would all tell you why that wouldn’t work, but the students have really taken this and just run with it,” Spitz says.
The program is now open to any student in middle or high school who is interested in being paired with a buddy. Volunteer buddies are students in grades 10 through 12. Both can fill out an online application, and pairings are made primarily based on scheduling compatibility. As of mid-summer there were 14 volunteer buddies, but Becker and Spitz expect that number to grow as the program reaches out to students going through freshman orientation at Princeton High School.
“I have six kids,” Spitz says, “and I have seen in my own family structure how the younger kids will listen to the older kids because they’re not me. It’s not mom saying ‘you should do this’; it’s another kid saying ‘omigosh you should do this.’”
“They’re listening to the Kates of the world in a very different way. There’s a special bond. She can tell an incoming high schooler what to expect. It’s a student perspective,” Spitz continues “It’s a kid telling you how to navigate what they just learned how to navigate. It’s a deeper connection and a connection you want more than an adult telling you what to do.”
It also allows students to forge relationships with peers they might otherwise never interact with, even once they can attend school in-person again. With students rushing between classes and sometimes never even visiting the cafeteria for lunch, it can be difficult to meet people who don’t share classes.
“What really helped me was having friends from a lot of different friend groups,” Becker says. “I really like saying hi to everyone in the hallway, so what if you paired these people together?”
Spitz has observed the power of these random interactions through another Children’s Fund program, a book club called “The Book U Get.” Part of the reading process includes filling out “wonder cards” with prompts such as “I wondered about these words …” and “I wondered why the author …”
“An African-American boy and Southeast Asian young woman kept having the same ‘wonders,’” Spitz explains. “He was on the football team; she was into punk music and science. They never would have crossed paths,” but they turned out to have a lot in common. “If you don’t have a class with someone,” she says, “you don’t know that you have these connections.”
And learning to make those connections is an important life skill that Kids2Kids can help teach.
“It’s turned into something more than I thought it could be,” Becker says. “I’m very excited to help continue this program. I think it has the potential to impact a lot of people.”
For more information on Kids2Kids and Princeton Children’s Fund, visit www.princetonchildrensfund.org.