Students deliver food to vulnerable populations
Matthew Casertano, left, and Dhruv Pai during a shopping trip. They created Teens Helping Seniors, an organization of young people picking up groceries for older people.
Montgomery County high schoolers founded two charities that have helped thousands of people get food during the pandemic.
Since Teens Helping Seniors — an organization of young people picking up groceries for older people — got its start in the county, it has expanded to 17 states and one Canadian province. There are chapters across the nation, from Houston to San Diego County.
Dhruv Pai and Matthew Casertano, two juniors at Montgomery Blair High School, started the organization last spring. Since then, Teens Helping Seniors has made more than 1,900 deliveries, including more than 700 in Montgomery County alone.
Lilly Behbehani started another local organization, Here2Help, as a senior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School.
The organization accepts canned food and restaurant donations and brings them to people who are “food insecure” — lacking consistent access to enough food. According to Manna Food Center, which distributes food to those in need, 16.3 percent of Montgomery County children are “food insecure.”
Here2Help has made about 1,700 deliveries, totaling about 40,000 pounds of food.
The organizations began in similar fashions, with students concerned about people who might be particularly vulnerable to the virus and its economic effects.
Pai and Casertano, who carpool to school together, discovered on one car ride that they were both delivering groceries to their grandparents. They questioned what older people without loved ones nearby were doing to get food.
“That question was really the basis for our organization,” Pai said.
Teens Helping Seniors began as a group of seven high school friends running errands for older people.
About a week after they started, Pai and Casertano got their first media coverage. The story was shared hundreds of times and prompted grocery delivery requests from an ever-growing number of people.
“We knew there was a big demand for our organization, and we felt an obligation to expand,” Casertano said.
They received emails from people across the country either requesting deliveries or wanting to start a chapter in their area.
The two spread word of their organization through media coverage, social media posts, flyers, and neighborhood listserv postings. They provided guidance to people interested in volunteering or starting their own chapter.
Though the two have started a socially distanced school year, they plan to continue leading the organization. Now that they are busier with class, they have cut down on meetings — speaking with chapter leaders and volunteers every other week instead of weekly.
Even after the nation recovers from the pandemic, Pai and Casertano hope to use the outlet to help older people in a variety of ways. They are distributing resources on how older people can do mail-in or absentee voting. They are also having volunteers reach out to older people who might be isolated where they live.
“We recognize that there are a lot of people who are still going to need delivery outside of the pandemic,” Casertano said, expecting the organization to continue helping people with mobility problems, wounded veterans, and people with severe immune deficiencies. “There are definitely other places we can take the organization.”
Behbehani’s Here2Help has also grown during the pandemic.
She started the organization in March, when high school first went remote.
Behbehani worried about students who previously received free and reduced-meal plans. She pitched the idea for Here2Help to her journalism teacher, and they began packing and delivering canned goods.
About a month later, the organization saw a drastic rise in requests, as well as more neighbors donating nonperishable foods.
Along with individual donations, Here2Help has partnered with local businesses — including Fresh Baguette, Lyon Bakery and vendors at the Bethesda Central Farm Market — to redistribute excess bread and produce.
Though the service involves contactless delivery, community members still show their gratitude. Volunteers have told Behbehani — who now attends the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — of people coming to the door with tears in their eyes.
Some recipients have sent messages of how they were recently furloughed, but have pledged to donate to Here2Help once they’re back on their feet financially.
“Here2Help is fully anonymous, so we like to think of it as food with dignity,” Behbehani said. “All we want is to help you.”
Scores of neighbors have donated food or offered to drop off deliveries, she added.
Casertano and Pai also said people have gone above and beyond to help others during the pandemic. They shared the specific example of a student delivering goods to an older person on their birthday.
When the recipient’s neighbor alerted Teens Helping Seniors to the special day, Casertano and Pai expected the volunteer to offer a simple birthday message.
Instead, the teenager made a card and delivered a birthday cake along with the groceries.
The recipient wrote to Pai and Casertano about how having someone wish them a happy birthday made their day, as they were separated from their friends and family during the pandemic.
“It made me realize how much a small thing can do for someone,” Casertano said. “The senior [citizen] was really incredibly happy about it.”