Creative teens with disabilities are finding ways of giving back during the pandemic

Sophie Stern, an Arizona teen with Down syndrome, is working toward a career as a dance teacher. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic—knowing she had to do 10 hours of community service to satisfy her high school's health class requirement—she put on her black t-shirt and leggings and began teaching a free Zoom class in ballet and contemporary dance at home three days a week. "My grandmother is a dance teacher, and she inspired me," Sophie explains.

Across the country, young people with intellectual and developmental disabilities have been volunteering during the pandemic. With schools and Special Olympics practice cancelled and places of employment shuttered, they're working in community gardens and helping to care for elderly relatives. Clients at The ARC of Madison Cortland, which provides support and services to people with disabilities, have sewed thousands of medical face masks on Singer industrial machines to donate to government agencies and healthcare providers.


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The Dance Teacher

A similar desire to be of service gripped Sophie in the midst of social distancing orders. She'd been used to dancing daily at her high school, assisting at her grandmother's studio and performing with a local theater company. She was supposed to travel to Chicago in March with her school's dance program, but COVID-19 risks cancelled the trip. For a while, she choreographed and performed a dance each day, which her mother posted on Facebook for an enthusiastic audience.


"The daily dance was so important for us both because it brought some structure to the day and because Sophie really got her exercise in," says her mother, Amy. "She spent about half an hour trying out songs before she landed on the one she wanted me to videotape. She did it because she knew people were looking forward to it. They would make song requests. It was a great way for her to communicate."

In April, Sophie decided to teach classes on Zoom. "It gives her some control at a time where none of us have much," says Amy. "For that half hour, three times a week, Sophie is in charge!"

Twenty two students signed up to take her free classes, including actor Sean McElwee from the hit TV series Born this Way. "They're people from around the country, of all ages and levels of dance experience," Amy explains. "It's been a great mix of people with disabilities and people who do not have disabilities."

The Fundraiser

Esteban Barriga of West Roxbury, MA is a young man with autism. When his city enacted social distancing rules, he saw that low-income community members with physical disabilities weren't able to wait in line at food banks. "He told me, 'Mom, we have to help people with disabilities who don't have jobs. They are poor and need lots of help,'" says his mother, Maribel Rueda.

Barriga began collecting grocery gift cards from local markets to mail to families with at least one disabled member at home. His original goal was to raise $5,000, but he ended up raising over $6,500 with donations from the Puerto Rican Festival of Massachusetts and Paisa Photography in South Carolina. "We have fed eighty families in total, from all towns in Massachusetts," he says. "We've also been feeding Boston Public School families [who have] children with disabilities."

The Facebook fundraising page he manages with his mother includes comments from donors, as well as photos and videos from families who have received the grocery story gift cards. In one video, a mother with two small children looks into the camera and thanks Esteban in Spanish. In another, several family members stand around a child in a hospital bed and chant in a chorus of voices, "Thank you, Esteban!"

"Esteban has autism but he is so caring and kind to others," says Maribel. "He feels no one should suffer and we all need to protect one another. She advises parents of young people with similar interests to "create a great campaign that touches people's hearts and allow their creativity to shine."

The Non-Profit Intern

Laura Estrich, a recent high school graduate from Corvallis, Oregon, puts her creativity to use as an intern for the city's new Disability Equity Center—a local nonprofit resource center created by and for people with disabilities and their allies. Without Special Olympics basketball and swimming to train for this year, she's been helping with outreach and advertising, creating educational PowerPoints and essays and collecting resources around disability justice.

"Laura has been a key champion and stakeholder since the very beginning," says the center's co-founder, Allison Hobgood. "She's an unpaid intern right now working on outreach, resource gathering, newsletters and just generally moving projects along. She's amazing."

"I was born with Down Syndrome," says Laura. "I do research projects on the internet about people with disabilities. It's my job and my future."

Her father, George, says that the internship has given his daughter purpose and meaningful work. "And social contact," he adds. "She has regular Zoom meetings with Allison Hobgood to talk about the Disability Equity Center."

He suggests that the parents of disabled teens interesting in volunteering during the pandemic set their kids up for success by keeping tasks doable and work sessions short. "Let teens do as much as they can on their own," he says. "It's good if the work is really meaningful, not just an activity to kill time."

For instance, young adults who are stuck at home can take on service projects like making greeting cards and videos to send to family members, or decorating sidewalks with chalk as reminders to wear masks, notes Amy. "If you can take your kid's jam, like dance, and figure out a way for them to do something positive with it that gives them a leadership role" she says. "That's great."

Esteban also advises young people to pay particular attention to news stories about people who are struggling, then consider how best to be of help. He's found the Facebook COVID-19 Response Center particularly helpful when connecting grocery store gift cards with families in need. "Fifty percent of the families I am feeding were found in the Facebook COVID- 19 response center page," he says. His efforts have been so successful that he's extended them for another month.

Sophie, too, has decided to continue teaching online. While she looks forward to the day when she can return to high school and her grandmother's studio, she's planning another series of classes in ballet and modern dance. Three days a week she'll continue to put on her t-shirt and leggings and log onto Zoom to demonstrate her kicks and pirouettes for students. "It's easy," she says, "and it's fun."


Melissa Hart is the author of Better with Books: 500 Diverse Books to Ignite Empathy and Encourage Self-Acceptance in Tweens and Teens (Sasquatch, 2019).

Images courtesy of Letters of Love
True

When Grace Berbig was 7 years old, her mom was diagnosed with leukemia, a cancer of the body’s blood-forming tissues. Being so young, Grace didn’t know what cancer was or why her mother was suddenly living in the hospital. But she did know this: that while her mom was in the hospital, she would always be assured that her family was thinking of her, supporting her and loving her every step of her journey.

Nearly every day, Grace and her two younger sisters would hand-make cards and fill them with drawings and messages of love, which their mother would hang all over the walls of her hospital room. These cherished letters brought immeasurable peace and joy to their mom during her sickness. Sadly, when Grace was just 10 years old, her mother lost her battle with cancer.“

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Losing my mom put the world in a completely different perspective for me,” Grace says. “I realized that you never know when someone could leave you, so you have to love the people you love with your whole heart, every day.”

Grace’s father was instrumental in helping in the healing process of his daughters. “I distinctly remember my dad constantly reminding my two little sisters, Bella and Sophie, and I that happiness is a choice, and it was now our job to turn this heartbreaking event in our life into something positive.”

When she got to high school, Grace became involved in the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and a handful of other organizations. But she never felt like she was doing enough.

“I wanted to create an opportunity for people to help beyond donating money, and one that anyone could be a part of, no matter their financial status.”

In October 2018, Grace started Letters of Love, a club at her high school in Long Lake, Minnesota, to emotionally support children battling cancer and other serious illnesses through letter-writing and craft-making.


Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Much to her surprise, more than 100 students showed up for the first club meeting. From then on, Letters of Love grew so fast that during her senior year in high school, Grace had to start a GoFundMe to help cover the cost of card-making materials.

Speaking about her nonprofit today, Grace says, “I can’t find enough words to explain how blessed I feel to have this organization. Beyond the amount of kids and families we are able to support, it allows me to feel so much closer and more connected to my mom.”

Since its inception, Letters of Love has grown to more than 25 clubs with more than 1,000 members providing emotional support to more than 60,000 patients in children’s hospitals around the world. And in the process it has become a full-time job for Grace.

“I do everything from training volunteers and club ambassadors, paying bills, designing merchandise, preparing financial predictions and overviews, applying for grants, to going through each and every card ensuring they are appropriate to send out to hospitals.”

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

In addition to running Letters of Love, Grace and her small team must also contend with the emotions inherent in their line of work.

“There have been many, many tears cried,” she says. “Working to support children who are battling cancer and other serious and sometimes chronic illnesses can absolutely be extremely difficult mentally. I feel so blessed to be an organization that focuses solely on bringing joy to these children, though. We do everything we can to simply put a smile on their face, and ensure they know that they are so loved, so strong, and so supported by people all around the world.”

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Letters of Love has been particularly instrumental in offering emotional support to children who have been unable to see friends and family due to COVID-19. A video campaign in the summer of 2021 even saw members of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings and the NHL’s Minnesota Wild offer short videos of hope and encouragement to affected children.

Grace is currently taking a gap year before she starts college so she can focus on growing Letters of Love as well as to work on various related projects, including the publication of a children’s book.

“The goal of the book is to teach children the immense impact that small acts of kindness can have, how to treat their peers who may be diagnosed with disabilities or illness, and how they are never too young to change the world,” she says.

Since she was 10, Grace has kept memories of her mother close to her, as a source of love and inspiration in her life and in the work she does with Letters of Love.

Image courtesy of Grace Berbig

“When I lost my mom, I felt like a section of my heart went with her, so ever since, I have been filling that piece with love and compassion towards others. Her smile and joy were infectious, and I try to mirror that in myself and touch people’s hearts as she did.”

For more information visit Letters of Love.

Please donate to Grace’s GoFundMe and help Letters of Love to expand, publish a children’s book and continue to reach more children in hospitals around the world.

This article originally appeared on November 5, 2013


When I saw these incredible photos Angelo Merendino took of his wife, Jennifer, as she battled breast cancer, I felt that I shouldn't be seeing this snapshot of their intimate, private lives.





















The photos humanize the face of cancer and capture the difficulty, fear, and pain that they experienced during the difficult time.

But as Angelo commented: "These photographs do not define us, but they are us."

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Images courtesy of AFutureSuperhero and Friends and Balance Dance Project
True

The day was scorching hot, but the weather wasn’t going to stop a Star Wars Stormtrooper from handing out school supplies to a long line of eager children. “You guys don’t have anything illegal back there - any droids or anything?” the Stormtrooper asks, making sure he was safe from enemies before handing over a colorful backpack to a smiling boy.

The man inside the costume is Yuri Williams, founder of AFutureSuperhero And Friends, a Los Angeles nonprofit that uplifts and inspires marginalized people with small acts of kindness.

Yuri’s organization is one of four inaugural grant winners from the Upworthy Kindness Fund, a joint initiative between Upworthy and GoFundMe that celebrates kindness and everyday actions inspired by the best of humanity. This year, the Upworthy Kindness Fund is giving $100,000 to grassroots changemakers across the world.

To apply, campaign organizers simply tell Upworthy how their kindness project is making a difference. Between now and the end of 2021, each accepted individual or organization will receive $500 towards an existing GoFundMe and a shout-out on Upworthy.

Meet the first four winners:

1: Balance Dance Project: This studio aims to bring accessible dance to all in the Sacramento, CA area. Lead fundraiser Miranda Macias says many dancers spend hours a day at Balance practicing contemporary, lyrical, hip-hop, and ballet. Balance started a GoFundMe to raise money to cover tuition for dancers from low-income communities, buy dance team uniforms, and update its facility. The $500 contribution from the Kindness Fund nudged Balance closer to its $5,000 goal.

2: Citizens of the World Mar Vista Robotics Team: In Los Angeles, middle school teacher James Pike is introducing his students to the field of robotics via a Lego-building team dedicated to solving real-world problems.

James started a GoFundMe to crowdfund supplies for his students’ team ahead of the First Lego League, a school-against-school matchup that includes robotics competitions. The team, James explained, needed help to cover half the cost of the pricey $4,000 robotics kit. Thanks to help from the Upworthy Kindness Fund and the generosity of the Citizens of the World Middle School community, the team exceeded its initial fundraising goal.

Citizens of the World Mar Vista Robotics Team video update youtu.be

3: Black Fluidity Tattoo Club: Kiara Mills and Tann Parker want to fix a big problem in the tattoo industry: there are too few Black tattoo artists. To tackle the issue, the duo founded the Black Fluidity Tattoo Club to inspire and support Black tattooers. While the Brooklyn organization is open to any Black person, Kiara and Tann specifically want to encourage dark-skinned artists to train in an affirming space among people with similar identities.

To make room for newcomers, the club recently moved into a larger studio with a third station for apprentices or guest artists. Unlike a traditional fundraiser that supports the organization exclusively, Black Fluidity Tattoo Club will distribute proceeds from GoFundMe directly to emerging Black tattoo artists who are starting their own businesses. The small grants, supported in part with a $500 contribution from the Upworthy Kindness Fund, will go towards artists’ equipment, supplies, furnishings, and other start-up costs.

4: AFutureSuperhero And Friends’ “Hope For The Holidays”: Founder Yuri Williams is fundraising for a holiday trip to spread cheer to people in need across all fifty states.

Along with collaborator Rodney Smith Jr., Yuri will be handing out gifts to children, adults, and animals dressed as a Star Wars’ Stormtrooper, Spiderman, Deadpool, and other movie or comic book characters. Starting this month, the crew will be visiting children with disabilities or serious illnesses, bringing leashes and toys to animal shelters for people taking home a new pet, and spreading blessings to unhoused people—all while in superhero costume. This will be the third time Yuri and his nonprofit have taken this journey.

AFutureSuperhero started a GoFundMe in July to cover the cost of gifts as well as travel expenses like hotels and rental cars. To help the nonprofit reach its $15,000 goal, the Upworthy Kindness Fund contributed $500 towards this good cause.

Think you qualify for the fund? Tell us how you’re bringing kindness to your community. Grants will be awarded on a rolling basis from now through the end of 2021. For questions and more information, please check out our FAQ's and the Kindness Toolkit for resources on how to start your own kindness fundraiser.

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The pandemic has been hard on everyone, but there are certain groups of people who have faced particularly intense challenges these past two years. Healthcare workers? For sure. Teachers? Definitely. Parents? Um, yes.

Moms specifically? Yesssss.

It's hard to describe how hard navigating the pandemic with kids has been. Figuring out childcare when schools and daycare centers shut down, managing kids' remote or hybrid schooling, constantly making decisions about what's safe and what's not, dealing with the inconsistency and chaos of it all, weighing risks with who is vaccinated and who isn't—none of it has been easy. Many parents are also raising kids with mental, emotional, behavioral or physical challenges that have only been made harder by pandemic life.

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Police arrest man suspected of scamming an elderly woman.

There has been a rise in scams against the elderly during the pandemic. According to the FBI, American seniors were scammed for $1 billion dollars in 2020, up $300 million from the previous year.

To stay connected with friends and family during the pandemic, more seniors joined social media, opening them up to new avenues for fraud.

“The combination of online shopping and social media creates easy venues for scammers to post false advertisements,” the FBI report said. “Many victims report ordering items from links advertised on social media and either receiving nothing at all or receiving something completely unlike the advertised item.”

But when scammers came after 73-year-old Jean Ebbert in Long Island, New York, they had no idea they were dealing with a law enforcement veteran. Ebbert is a former 911 dispatcher, so she knows exactly what a scam looks like.

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