Two local teens grocery shopped for their grandparents. Soon it became a national volunteer effort

News

Two Montgomery County teenagers who started helping their grandparents during the novel coronavirus outbreak have turned their goodwill into a nationwide volunteer delivery service with 14 chapters across the country.

The friends from Montgomery Blair High School, Dhruv Pai, 16, and Matt Casertano, 15, were both buying groceries for their grandparents in early March, as coronavirus cases started to appear in the Washington region. That’s when Dhruv realized the greater need — and a possible solution. There are plenty of older Americans who don’t have younger relatives nearby to help during this pandemic.

Dhruv and Matt created Teens Helping Seniors, which connects older adults with volunteers who will deliver groceries or other supplies right to their doorstep. They developed the idea in March just before schools closed because of the outbreak, which suddenly gave them and their classmates a lot more time to help out.

Matt said they originally planned for Teens Helping Seniors to be a network for classmates at their high school, but within a week they started to expand because of the high demand.

By the end of the second week, Matt and Dhruv already had their first chapter outside Montgomery County, in Albany, N.Y. The group now has more than a dozen chapters in the United States — from California to New York — and one forming abroad in Montreal.

“We’ve had a really rapidly growing demand,” Dhruv said. “Working out those kinds of logistics can be really hard.”

Most of the teens who deliver groceries have a driver’s license, but Matt and Dhruv don’t, so they walk, bike or carpool with their parents to a store to fulfill an order for a client. Their chapter has completed about 350 deliveries.

One volunteer even presented a senior with a homemade birthday cake for his 85th birthday, free of charge, to go along with his groceries, Dhruv said.

“That kind of blew my mind because the teen and the senior didn’t know each other. I mean, they were strangers,” Dhruv said.

In Montgomery County, the group has about 250 volunteers. Some shop and make deliveries, and there’s a team dedicated to logistics, connecting seniors with volunteers. Others maintain the group’s social media presence, getting the word out about the service.

Seniors who are interested in the service can email the group and include a home address and preferred schedule for deliveries. The teens will assign a volunteer, and the client will email over a grocery list. When the volunteer is about to go to the store, they call the client to confirm the delivery time. The clients can leave their payment outside or pay using Venmo.

Teens Helping Seniors also will deliver prescriptions and other necessities, Dhruv said.

Volunteers who do deliveries wear gloves and masks, which Matt said they’ve received free from local mask-making organizations.

“Seniors and volunteers have to be extremely careful about this,” Matt said, adding that volunteers are instructed to use disinfectant wipes to clean the bags of groceries before dropping them off.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states on its website that older adults and people with underlying medical conditions “might be at higher risk for severe illness from covid-19.″

Matt said it makes sense for teens to volunteer to deliver groceries if older adults are more vulnerable. Plus, they certainly have time on their hands.

The co-founders have been featured in CNN and People Magazine.

To spread the word, the group has been posting to Facebook and Nextdoor, a social network for neighborhoods.

Regula Guess, a retired speech pathologist who lives in Potomac, heard about Teens Helping Seniors on Nextdoor, when the region started to shut down in mid-March. Guess, 65, said her husband is at risk due to his age, and she was “scared to death” about going to the store.

Teens Helping Seniors connected Guess with Jacob Kaplan-Davis, a junior at Wootton High School, who volunteered after learning about the group on Instagram. Guess said Jacob would call her from the store if he had questions, such as, “What flavor of Greek yogurt would you like?” Or, “Do you prefer the cinnamon-flavored cereal over the light brown sugar variety?”

“I was just so impressed by these young people doing this,” she said. “He always called and was very polite. It’s just amazing how this brings out the good in people.”

Guess said she goes to the grocery store early in the morning, when there are fewer people around, but she added she’ll absolutely email Jacob again if the number of covid-19 cases increases in the county.

Jacob, 16, said he spends six to eight hours a week buying groceries, coordinating deliveries around Rockville and organizing the group’s national efforts. On average he makes two regular deliveries a week, and in a busy week three or four.

“The first time I went, it took me forever to find everything. I had to go to every aisle multiple times, but you start to learn the layout and get faster,” said Jacob, who rarely went grocery shopping before volunteering for Teens Helping Seniors.

“It’s definitely given me a greater appreciation of my mom when she goes grocery shopping,” he said.