How suburban teens are empowering seniors to use technology

Every month or so, a group of more than 15 teens from suburban high schools meets up with senior residents of the Greencastle of Barrington apartments.

It’s not just for companionship. These teens are on a mission to help empower seniors who need help with technology. They call themselves: Team STEM for All.

At one of their recent visits, more than one dozen residents signed up for help. Their problems ran the gamut from trouble with email and mobile apps on their phones, to solving issues with their laptops and TVs.

Another 50 residents filled out surveys handed out by the team to suggest future problem-solving initiatives.

One resident, Hemant Patel, asked the teens to help with controlling the number of advertisements that popped up while he and his wife watched YouTube videos from their native India.

No problem, said Brandon Lu of Lincolnshire. He sat down in front of the couple’s laptop and installed an ad blocker, which solved the problem.

“I watch a lot of YouTube,” Brandon admitted, “maybe a little too much. So installing that was pretty easy.”

A pair of Stevenson High School students, Alisa Wang of Buffalo Grove and Emily Lu of Lincolnshire, started the group. Over the last year, they have recruited students from Conant, Glenbrook North and Vernon Hills high schools to join them.

Both Alisa and Emily point to helping their own grandparents with technology as the inspiration for starting Team STEM for All.

“My passion in science and technology has allowed me to help connect seniors with their family members and friends in a world where technology is evolving rapidly,” Alisa says.

Emily’s grandmother lived with her family and she saw firsthand her limited know-how with technology.

“I hope to help them learn to use technology more easily,” Emily said, “especially because it plays a critical role in our daily lives.”

Many of the residents of Greencastle are immigrants — nearly 70 percent are Asian — consequently, the teens often are called upon to install translation apps on their phones.

“A lot of people are able to keep up with their families back home through WeChat, so we install that a lot,” Emily says. The free messaging and calling app allows users to easily connect with family and friends abroad.

Susan Hulet, who manages the Greencastle apartments, says the teens also participate with the seniors in other events sponsored by the building.

“They’re amazing,” Hulet says. “They have helped so many of our residents with their phones, TVs, iPads and laptops. But it’s also the social aspect. Many of our residents speak Mandarin and they don’t know how to get help. This interaction allows both our residents and the teens to practice their language skills.”

Late last month, the team launched a website that tells all about the group and allows other teens the chance to sign up to help. The site also welcomes input on a mobile app team members are designing to help seniors problem solve their devices on their own.

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