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).

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Judy Vaughan has spent most of her life helping other women, first as the director of House of Ruth, a safe haven for homeless families in East Los Angeles, and later as the Project Coordinator for Women for Guatemala, a solidarity organization committed to raising awareness about human rights abuses.

But in 1996, she decided to take things a step further. A house became available in the mid-Wilshire area of Los Angeles and she was offered the opportunity to use it to help other women and children. So, in partnership with a group of 13 people who she knew from her years of activism, she decided to make it a transitional residence program for homeless women and their children. They called the program Alexandria House.

"I had learned from House of Ruth that families who are homeless are often isolated from the surrounding community," Judy says. "So we decided that as part of our mission, we would also be a neighborhood center and offer a number of resources and programs, including an after-school program and ESL classes."

She also decided that, unlike many other shelters in Los Angeles, she would accept mothers with their teenage boys.

"There are very few in Los Angeles [that do] due to what are considered liability issues," Judy explains. "Given the fact that there are (conservatively) 56,000 homeless people and only about 11,000 shelter beds on any one night, agencies can be selective on who they take."

Their Board of Directors had already determined that they should take families that would have difficulties finding a place. Some of these challenges include families with more than two children, immigrant families without legal documents, moms who are pregnant with other small children, families with a member who has a disability [and] families with service dogs.

"Being separated from your son or sons, especially in the early teen years, just adds to the stress that moms who are unhoused are already experiencing," Judy says.

"We were determined to offer women with teenage boys another choice."

Courtesy of Judy Vaughan

Alexandria House also doesn't kick boys out when they turn 18. For example, Judy says they currently have a mom with two daughters (21 and 2) and a son who just turned 18. The family had struggled to find a shelter that would take them all together, and once they found Alexandria House, they worried the boy would be kicked out on his 18th birthday. But, says Judy, "we were not going to ask him to leave because of his age."

Homelessness is a big issue in Los Angeles. "[It] is considered the homeless capital of the United States," Judy says. "The numbers have not changed significantly since 1984 when I was working at the House of Ruth." The COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded the problem. According to Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), over 66,000 people in the greater Los Angeles area were experiencing homelessness in 2020, representing a rise of 12.7% compared with the year before.

Each woman who comes to Alexandria House has her own unique story, but some common reasons for ending up homeless include fleeing from a domestic violence or human trafficking situation, aging out of foster care and having no place to go, being priced out of an apartment, losing a job, or experiencing a family emergency with no 'cushion' to pay the rent.

"Homelessness is not a definition; it is a situation that a person finds themselves in, and in fact, it can happen to almost anyone. There are many practices and policies that make it almost impossible to break out of poverty and move out of homelessness."

And that's why Alexandria House exists: to help them move out of it. How long that takes depends on the woman, but according to Judy, families stay an average of 10 months. During that time, the women meet with support staff to identify needs and goals and put a plan of action in place.

A number of services are provided, including free childcare, programs and mentoring for school-age children, free mental health counseling, financial literacy classes and a savings program. They have also started Step Up Sisterhood LA, an entrepreneurial program to support women's dreams of starting their own businesses. "We serve as a support system for as long as a family would like," Judy says, even after they have moved on.

And so far, the program is a resounding success.

92 percent of the 200 families who stayed at Alexandria House have found financial stability and permanent housing — not becoming homeless again.

Since founding Alexandria House 25 years ago, Judy has never lost sight of her mission to join with others and create a vision of a more just society and community. That is why she is one of Tory Burch's Empowered Women this year — and the donation she receives as a nominee will go to Alexandria House and will help grow the new Start-up Sisterhood LA program.

"Alexandria House is such an important part of my life," says Judy. "It has been amazing to watch the children grow up and the moms recreate their lives for themselves and for their families. I have witnessed resiliency, courage, and heroic acts of generosity."

via Wikimedia Commons and Goalsetter

America's ethnic wealth gap is a multi-faceted problem that would take dramatic action, on multiple fronts, to overcome. One of the ways to help communities improve their economic well-being is through financial literacy.

Investopedia says there are five primary sources of financial education—families, high school, college, employers, and the military — and that education and household income are two of the biggest factors in predicting whether someone has a high level of financial literacy.

New Orleans Saints safety, two-time Super Bowl Champion, and social justice activist Malcolm Jenkins and The Malcolm Jenkins Foundation hope to help bridge the wealth gap by teaching students about investing at a young age.

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2020 was difficult (to say the least). The year was full of life changes, losses, and lessons as we learned to navigate the "new normal." You may have questions about what the changes and challenges of 2020 mean for your taxes. That's where TurboTax Live comes in, making it easy to connect with real tax experts to help with your taxes – or even do them for you, start to finish.

Not only has TurboTax Live helped millions of people get their taxes done right, but this year they've also celebrated people who uplifted their communities during a difficult time by surprising them with "little lifts" to help out even more.

Here are a few of their stories:


Julz, hairdresser and salon owner

"As a hairdresser and salon owner, 2020 was extremely challenging," says Julz. "Being a hairdresser has historically been a recession-proof industry, but we've never faced global shut down due to health risk, or pandemic, not in my lifetime. And for the first time, hairdressers didn't have job security."

Julz had to shut down her salon and go on unemployment benefits for the first time. She also had to figure out how she was going to support herself, her staff and her business during this difficult time. But many other beauty industry professionals didn't have access to the resources they needed, so Julz decided to help.

"My business partner and I began teaching basic financial literacy to other beauty industry professionals," she says. "Transitioning our business from behind the chair to an online academy was a challenge we tackled head-on so that we could move hairdressers into this new space of education, and create a more accessible curriculum to better serve our industry.

Julz connected with a TurboTax Live expert who helped her understand how unemployment affected her taxes and gave her guidance on filing quarterly estimated taxes for her small business. "I was terrified to sit at a computer and tackle this mess of receipts," Julz says, so "it was great to have some virtual handholding to walk me through each question."

In addition to giving Julz the personalized tax advice she needed, TurboTax Live surprised her with a "little lift" that empowered her to help even more beauty professionals. "When my tax expert Diana surprised me with a little lift, I was moved to tears," says Julz. "With that little lift, I was able to establish a scholarship fund to help get other hairdressers the education they deserve."


Alana, new mom

Alana welcomed her first child in 2020. "I think my biggest challenge was figuring out how to be a mom, with no guidance," she says. "My original plan was to have my mom by my side, teaching me the ropes, but because of COVID, she wasn't able to come out here."

She was also without a job for most of 2020 and struggled to find something new.

So, Alana took it as a sign: she decided to launch her own business so she could support her new baby, and that's exactly what she did. She started a feel-good company that specializes in creating affirmation card decks — and she's currently in the process of starting a second, video-editing business.

TurboTax Live answered Alana's questions about her taxes and gave her some much-needed advice as she prepared to launch her businesses. Thanks to their "little lift," they provided her with a little emotional support too.

"I got my mom a plane ticket to finally [have her] meet [my daughter] for her first birthday," Alana says. "I was also able to get a new computer," which helped her invest in her new business and work on her video editing skills. "It's helped my family and me so much," she says.


Michael, science teacher

When schools shut down across the country last year, Michael had to learn how to adapt to a virtual classroom.

"As a teacher, I had to completely revamp everything," he says, so that he could keep his students engaged while teaching online. "At the beginning, it was a nightmare because I had no idea. I had to go from A-Z within a couple of weeks."

Michael's TurboTax Live expert answered his questions about how working from home affected his taxes and helped him uncover surprising tax deductions. To top it all off, his expert surprised him with brand new science equipment and supplies, which allowed him to create an entire line of classes on YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook. "Now I can truly potentially reach millions of children with my lessons," he says. "I would never have taken that leap if not for the little lift from TurboTax Live."



Ricky, motivational youth speaker

As a motivational speaker, Ricky was used to doing his job in person, but, he says, "when COVID-19 hit, it altered my ability to travel and visit schools in person [because] schools moved to fully virtual or hybrid models."

He knew he had to pivot — so he began offering small virtual group workshops for student leadership groups at middle and high schools.

"This allowed me to work with student leaders to plan how they would continue making a positive impact on their school community," he says. He wasn't sure how being remote would affect his taxes, but TurboTax Live Self-Employed gave him the advice and answers that he needed to keep more money in his pocket at tax time — and the little lift he received from them has helped him serve even more students.

"[It] has been a major blessing," he says "There will be multiple schools and student groups from across the country that I can hold leadership workshops with to empower them with the tools to be inspirational leaders in their school, community, and world."

Plus, he says, it was great knowing he had an expert to help him figure out how being remote affected his taxes. "I felt confident and assured in the process of filing my taxes knowing I had an expert working with me, says Ricky. "There were things my expert knew that I would not have considered when filing on my own."

Filing your taxes doesn't have to be intimidating, especially after a year like 2020. TurboTax Live experts can give you the "little lift" you need to get your taxes done. File with the help of an expert or let an expert file for you! Go to TurboTax Live to get started.