Family

Wondering how to help after a tragic news story? This bot might have the answer.

Technology is coming through for us all in a big way in the age of Trump.

Wondering how to help after a tragic news story? This bot might have the answer.

There's a lot going on in the world right now, and it makes total sense if you're feeling a bit overwhelmed. I am too.

Hurricane recovery, wildfires ripping along the West Coast, rising tensions with North Korea, repeated threats to the state of health care in this country, trans people being banned from the military, people from other countries being banned from traveling here, Title IX protections being reinterpreted, environmental protections being gutted, professional sports becoming a divisive topic — the list goes on and on.

Maybe one of these causes really hits home for you. Maybe you want to help, but don't know where to even start. I hear that, and as someone who is both plugged into current events and prone to anxiety attacks when presented with complicated situations, getting involved can be really overwhelming.


I've turned to robots for help. Yes, robots.

A slew of new chatbots have come out in the past year or so, and they're really useful for people, like me, who are feeling overwhelmed by the world around them.

Some chatbots, such as infinite conversation application Cleverbot, are little more than novelties, but others are actually improving lives in tangible ways.

DoNotPay is a chatbot that started out as a way to automatically challenge parking tickets in court, but now includes the ability to sue Equifax in the wake of its massive data breach. Other bots, such as 5 Calls and Resistbot, make contacting your representatives in Congress a breeze.

One of the newest chatbots I've added to my life recently is called Hope.

When you open up the app's chat dialogue in your phone's browser, you're presented with a handful of the day's top stories. Tell it which one you're curious about, and it will ask if you're interested in getting more context, want links to more detailed sources, or it gives you the option of learning how you can help.

The interface is simple, feels natural, and makes for a pretty smooth user experience for chatbot power-users as well as relative newbies. I was drawn in by its ability to distill overwhelming events into single action items. For example, if you select the "How can I help?" option when reading about recovery in Puerto Rico, you'll be prompted to donate to either the Hispanic Federation, a nonprofit currently being promoted by Lin-Manuel Miranda, or Bethenny Frankel's B Strong initiative. Clicking "Donate" takes you directly to the individual charities' websites.

"Sometimes we'll see a really cool action [people can take] tied to a news story and build it out from there," says Marisa Kabas, Hope's editorial director, describing the process as a bit of a "chicken and egg" situation.

One thing Kabas and her team ask themselves before highlighting a story on Hope is whether there's actually something people can do with the news item. In other words, it's unlikely you'll see much about Trump's tweets or the controversy in reaction to those tweets on Hope. Kabas says that those types of stories are "just adding to the noise" and are often unproductive.

While the simplicity and narrow focus of Hope is one of its strengths, it's also one of the bot's biggest weaknesses, as its "help" options are currently limited to a somewhat sparse selection of topics. Still, if you're feeling stressed, but interested in finding out how to get involved in a specific cause, Hope is a pretty solid first place to check.

Whether you're looking for a new way to consume news, contact your representatives, or take action, there's probably a chatbot out there for you.

Maybe, like me, you're easily overwhelmed by what Kabas refers to as "the noise," the superfluous-yet-predictable result of a 24-hour news and entertainment media. Or maybe, like so many of us, you're just really busy and don't have time to tackle every thing happening in the world all at once.

The bots mentioned above are great because they do a lot of the work for you, helping you be informed while giving you real, tangible things you can do to make your life even just a little bit easier.

Disclaimer: We were not paid to promote any of the products mentioned in this article. We just thought they were pretty cool.

True

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."

Simon & Garfunkel's song "Bridge Over Troubled Water" has been covered by more than 50 different musical artists, from Aretha Franklin to Elvis Presley to Willie Nelson. It's a timeless classic that taps into the universal struggle of feeling down and the comfort of having someone to lift us up. It's beloved for its soothing melody and cathartic lyrics, and after a year of pandemic challenges, it's perhaps more poignant now than ever.

A few years a go, American singer-songwriter Yebba Smith shared a solo a capella version of a part of "Bridge Over Troubled Water," in which she just casually sits and sings it on a bed. It's an impressive rendition on its own, highlighting Yebba's soulful, effortless voice.

But British singer Jacob Collier recently added his own layered harmony tracks to it, taking the performance to a whole other level.

Keep Reading Show less
Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
True

Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

Keep Reading Show less