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Food for Thought

Area Students Channel Their Talents to Help Ensure Others Have Food During the Pandemic

Much of the talk of the pandemic relates to food. Is it safe to dine indoors? Did you wash your hands after unpacking your takeout meal? Will the grocery-store shelves be re-stocked? But for some, there is real worry about having enough food at all. 

Several Montgomery County young people, such as Dhruv Pai, are doing excellent work to help alleviate others’ food insecurity.  Currently a junior in the Science, Mathematics, and Computer Science magnet program at Montgomery Blair High School, Dhurv is as interested in community service as in computer science and engineering.  “Science is most valuable when you have a humanitarian impact,” he said.  “If you aren’t creating inventions to help people, it doesn’t really matter.”

Ana Gutierrez Covarrubias, a 2020 graduate of Winston Churchill High School, and currently a University of Southern California freshman agreed and said, “If you have a talent, you should definitely use it to help people. That’s a big part of why we have talents: To make the world a better place. It’s not just about doing it for the money. It’s definitely better to help people.” 

Dhruv won the 2019 Youth Volunteer of the Year Award from the Community Foundation of Montgomery County for many of his accomplishments. These include the development of the K-ring, a low-cost smart tracking ring to connect caregivers with wandering dementia patients. Dhruv also founded Zebra Health Net to help people with rare diseases find appropriate clinical trials and to improve relations between patients, healthcare providers, and rare-disease researchers. And Dhruv serves as a brand ambassador and CTO for Arts-n-Stem 4 Hearts,  which helps distribute art and STEM activity kits to children and seniors in hospitals and nursing homes. His latest endeavor is Teens Helping Seniors. Although the idea is simple -- a free food-delivery service for seniors – it’s grown into a complex nationwide organization that Dhruv and his friend Matthew Casertano lead.

As for Ana, while still in high school, she collaborated with her friend and fellow Winston Churchill student Rachel de Silva, and Julie Garel, a communications consultant, to create a children’s book, the proceeds for which the trio are donating to local food banks. Julie was helping Ana with her college essays, (which is Julie’s side gig) when Julie had the idea for a book, and invited Ana to participate. “From the get-go, this was a project to raise money for charity,” Julie said. News coverage of people struggling with food insecurity during the pandemic “made it a very simple decision,” Julie said. “Ana has such a generous heart, so I immediately thought of Ana. I just felt that Ana would be connected to the good intentions behind the project and she was.”

Julie planned to write the book and she hoped Ana, a self-taught photographer, could provide the images. “I thought it was a super-cool idea,” said Ana, “but I didn’t think photography would be enough for a kid’s book.” Ana reached out Rachel – an illustrator and now a University of Pennsylvania nursing-school freshman – to see if she could help. They discovered a way to merge Ana’s photographs with Rachel’s drawings into unusual and beautiful illustrations that worked perfectly in the book. They were just getting started at the onset of the pandemic, last March and April.

That was also when Dhruv’s group, Teens Helping Seniors, was getting off the ground. Dhruv’s grandparents were his initial inspiration. He wanted to do their grocery shopping and deliver to them so they could stay safe at home. Soon he drafted students from other area schools and they began helping seniors beyond their own families.

“In the beginning, it was hard to get off the ground,” Dhruv said. “It was hard to get kids to join a volunteer organization that they never heard of. Then we got coverage on GoodNewsNetwork.org and validated ourselves as a volunteer organization.” Soon, others reached out to Dhruv from across town and across the country, and also from Canada.  “Then we got more media coverage and it started accelerating,” he said.

As of mid-October, the group included 730 volunteers who had made 2,100 deliveries in 17 states and provinces through 33 chapters. Early on, Dhruv and others set up the group’s website (TeensHelpingSeniors.org), and by August, they incorporated as a Maryland non-profit.  Currently, they are applying to become a 501(c)(3).

Meanwhile, Ana, Rachel and Julie were progressing on their book, “Silver Lining Search Club,” which takes place over a single day in the life of a young girl who must stay indoors due to the pandemic. She searches out her window for the silver lining of her situation and discovers it in the relationships and natural world she sees there.

“I think it was as much for me as it was for instilling a sense of optimism in the kids we wrote the book for,” Julie said.

Before this project, Rachel had mostly drawn realistic pencil-and-paper portraits, which she didn’t think would work for a children’s book. She said she “played around with cartoons and illustrations” and eventually taught herself to draw on an iPad and settled on a drawing style that would work.

Of course, all of Rachel’s meetings with Ana and Julie had to be virtual. They shared files, drawings, photographs and plans back and forth as the book took shape. In most of the book images, Ana’s photographs form the background for Rachel’s drawings but in some, the two art forms are more blended. For instance, in one photo, the main character’s little brother sits on a blanket. The background and the toys on the blanket are photographs while the boy himself is one of Rachel’s drawings.

As of early October, sales of the book – which was printed by and is sold on Amazon - had generated about $2,000, which Julie, Ana and Rachel donated to No Kid Hungry, the first of several food charities they plan to support.

Ana, Rachel and Dhruv all said that their spring semester of school last year left them with plenty of free time to work on these projects since, at that time, their virtual classrooms were not very demanding. In the fall semester school became more time-intensive so Dhruv said Teens Helping Seniors shifted most of their deliveries to the weekends but he also stressed that each chapter is different.

Dhruv said, “We give them (each chapter) flexibility but we have strict core organizational guidelines.” These include keeping volunteers and the seniors safe by following health protocols, and following the rules of being a non-profit. “For instance, we can’t accept tips,” Dhruv said. The group also delivers medicine and before the election, they delivered information on non-partisan voting-related issues.

The most common feedback Dhruv’s group receives is: What would we have done without you? “This changes the way seniors can respond to the pandemic,” he said, “They know their next meal will be there for them. That is really impactful.”

Reflecting on the impact of “Silver Lining Search Club,” Rachel said: “I have been seeing so many people in need, losing jobs or not being able to afford rent. It was great to donate our proceeds, and, in a sense, that was our own silver lining.”

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