Last year, when Menlo Park resident Desta Raines contacted an old friend in Italy on behalf of her curious 13-year-old niece, none of them could have predicted that a year later, they'd be leading international video calls with teens around the world hungry to connect over leadership and change-making.
It all started when Dalayna Carr, a now 14-year-old who lives in Virginia, asked Raines about how people in Italy were managing the pandemic, at the time when the country was being devastated by COVID-19.
Raines contacted her friend Tiffany Hogan, who is an English teacher in Venice, who invited her English-learner students to participate in a group video call to talk about it. About 10 students participated, far more than the one or two Carr had hoped for. They held more discussions, and students from Australia and beyond started to join.
The ability to connect with other students across the world who were also stuck going to school online, disconnected from their friends, and having their lives disrupted helped some students realize that they weren't alone, even if they were stuck at home, or in their home countries, Raines said.
"People all over the world are having the same experience," she said.
At the same time, the lockdown cycles around the world have meant that at any given point over the past year, some students have faced tightening restrictions while others had more freedoms.
And while the conversations may have started out on the topic of COVID, students have since expanded their horizons to other areas of discussion.
Through word of mouth, the conversations snowballed into a grassroots organization now called Teens Connect Global, which has since spread all over the world. The student-led organization regularly hosts conversations with students from places like Ukraine, Pakistan, India, South Korea and Vietnam, as well as other parts of the U.S.
Generally, the calls are held over Zoom and involve guest speakers who present on a topic that the youth have selected, after which the students move into breakout rooms on Zoom to have discussions, Raines said. The number of participants ranges from 10 to 60, with an average of about 20.
"I like to think of it as real-time pen pals," Raines said. With the advent of Zoom and video calls, having international video calls is a modern iteration of the old-fashioned pen pal program that enables students to interact far faster than "snail mail" or email would otherwise permit, she said.
Raines contributes to the organization as a facilitator who helps moderate the calls, which are restricted to teens ages 12 to 18. The calls have an adult present to supervise the discussions.
For Carr, the conversations have helped her realize that although other teens around the world may come from different cultures, they have many similarities in their day-to-day lives as they study, play sports and engage in extracurricular activities.
In addition, many of the students share a particular passion for the environment, she said.
Because all of the conversations are conducted in English, for many international students, participation comes with the added benefit of an opportunity to practice a language they are still learning.
One tricky piece of the initiative is finding times that work for busy students all over the world, Raines explained. Calls generally happen at 7 a.m. Pacific Standard Time, which may explain why she's had some trouble recruiting students from the West Coast to join the calls, she added.
Topics range widely – the teens have talked about human rights, discrimination and refugees, as well as activism, the environment and LGBTQ+ issues, Raines and Carr said.
Another obstacle the organization faces is in connecting with students in places where Wi-Fi is not as readily accessible. They have been troubleshooting to help some students from Rwanda and Colombia who don't have their own access to technology figure out how to participate as well. Generally though, the students who have logged into the program have had strong enough connections to participate fully in the discussions, Raines said.
Raines said that the program is aimed at fostering youth leadership and has enabled her to mentor her niece and other teens. The partnership between the aunt and niece has brought them closer, both Carr and Raines said.
To learn more about Teens Connect Global, visit teensconnectglobal.org.