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Stanford students found intergenerational support network, “Virtual Companions”

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In the middle of winter quarter, just weeks before the intensifying COVID-19 pandemic would force most undergraduates to vacate campus, Gaby Li ’22 sat in her dorm room playing “Amazing Grace” on the cello into her phone speaker. On the other end of the line sat her grandmother, miles away in Virginia, who, although unable to open her eyes, smiled and listened contently. 

Soon after this phone call, Li’s grandmother passed away. Just like the cello performance, the pair’s last interaction took place remotely.

Luckily, Li’s family was able to hold a funeral service for their loved one, yet many others lost this opportunity as restrictions on group gatherings grew in severity. Li, inspired by the giving spirit of her grandmother, whom she describes as a “selfless warrior,” became increasingly aware of the loneliness and isolation experienced by many older adults housed in residences where social interaction quickly became impossible. 

Li observed that these residences “had less staff and less bandwidth to be able to support seniors’ social needs, since all the attention and concern was around their physical needs and health safety.” 

Creative virtual interaction provided a way to alleviate these concerns. Li said that she has “always been a huge advocate of mental and emotional health and a big believer in how arts and music can bring people together, especially during tough times.”

Li initially attempted to bring these experiences to older adults through a Zoom streaming of Stanford Medicine’s [email protected] Concerts, yet she quickly found that limited technology access at senior homes held her back. After contacting several residences, Li received a recommendation to provide phone calls to the elderly instead, and the first branch of Li’s organization, Virtual Companions, was formed.

Li is currently serving as the founder and director of Virtual Companions, “a national non-profit working to foster acts of intergenerational kindness and meaningful companionships between generations through conversation and the arts.” The initiative consists of four programs: phone calls, pen pals, cards and crafts and virtual concerts. Each of these initiatives is led by fellow Stanford students Ben Hu ’23, Emily Wong ’22, Ciauna Tran ’21 and Cam Lincoln ’22, respectively. The entire Virtual Companions core team consists of 15 individuals, both Stanford affiliates and others across the nation. Through the four branches of Virtual Companions, adolescents and young adults can “get to know and learn from” senior citizens by exchanging letters and craft projects, speaking regularly over the phone and sharing musical and artistic talents online.

Li credits the spirit and defining role of her grandmother as a large portion of her inspiration for the campaign, explaining that founding Virtual Companions “became this way of processing [her] grandma’s passing… and trying to honor her life as best as [she] can.” Through her organization, Li enables herself and others to receive “older person support that [her] only older relative is no longer able to give.”

Li began by contacting nursing homes in Virginia, which she regularly visited throughout her childhood to play cello for residents, while team members such as Hu expanded the outreach network through contacting senior residences in his home state of Connecticut. Virtual Companions has since built a network of almost 100 people across the country, ranging from high school students to individuals over 100 years old within California, Colorado, Illinois, Connecticut and Virginia. 

Virtual Companions emphasizes that each participant is neither a volunteer nor a recipient, but rather part of a “web of intergenerational support” as both a giver and receiver of mentorship, life lessons and empathy. Rather than a one-way exchange, Virtual Companions intends to facilitate multifaceted and reciprocal relationships. As the initiative’s organizers are mostly college students, Li hopes to expand the age range of the Virtual Companions team to “reflect [their] mission” of involvement across age boundaries. 

Li met several of the Virtual Companions program heads, including Wong, through the Stanford Haas Center for Public Service, where she communicated with fellow students also looking for innovative, low-technology ways to support those in need during an uncertain time. Wong connected with Li through her idea to spearhead her own pen pal program “to help with the loneliness caused by COVID-19,” and the pair joined forces to create the pen pal branch of Virtual Companions.

Currently, the pen pal branch consists of approximately 50 people that send and receive letters with their corresponding partner, determined by Wong. After she receives contact information from older adults, either individually or with the help of partners such as Meals on Wheels, Wong researches their unique passions and hobbies and uses this information to pair them with the perfect student match. Hu follows a similar process within the phone call system, pairing individuals with shared interests. To overcome financial boundaries to participation, Virtual Companions provides student reimbursements and supplies participants with stamps and other necessary supplies.

Lincoln, head of the virtual concert program, shares Li’s belief that the current conditions warrant the “need of an intergenerational group” encompassing “figures throughout all walks of life,” and he currently assists in fulfilling Virtual Companions’ mission by collecting and compiling musical and artistic performance submissions to share with audiences on YouTube.

In the future, Virtual Companions plans to expand their scope in order to reach “anyone feeling lonely and isolated during these times,” Li said, no matter their location or age. After COVID-19 subsides, Li aims to organize in-person meetups for phone call companions, as well as live concerts via Zoom. 

In a time of uncertainty and loneliness for many individuals nationwide, Li said, Virtual Companions hopes to “foster acts of kindness and build an extended family” in the weeks, months and years ahead.

Contact Lexi Kupor at alkupor ‘at’ gmail.com.

This article has been updated to reflect that Gaby played the cello for her grandmother in winter quarter, not spring quarter as previously stated in an earlier version of this article. The Daily regrets this error.

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Lexi Kupor is a high schooler writer participating in The Daily’s Summer Journalism Workshop.