“It’s like I’m running from a tsunami.”

That’s how Kaitlyn Cook, a 16-year-old sophomore from Sedro-Woolley High School near Mount Vernon, described her initial thoughts about how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected her. 

Cook had written a short poem about her experiences just to vent. Then her mother showed her a website for a student art and writing contest called “Tales of Quarantine.” Cook transformed her poem into the contest-winning two-and-a-half-minute spoken word video, splicing in pencil sketches, photos of her desk and screenshots of her online learning schedule — imagery with which a lot of kids and teens can relate. 

The national contest was sponsored by Mission InspirEd, a high school student-run, Seattle-based education nonprofit, which asked kids and teens to creatively respond to the question: “How has COVID-19 impacted you and your community?” 

Mission InspirEd provides volunteer-based, free youth-to-youth tutoring as well as student-led courses on everything from programming with Java script to creative writing, history and music. 

Mission InspirEd leaders Richard Yang and Andrew Xie, both 17 and seniors at Newport High School in Bellevue, said they wanted the contest to serve as both an outlet for youth and a chance for them to learn from and be inspired by other peers. 

Xie said that while it’s important for students to feel empowered in schools, it’s also important to “carve out things outside the education space” to give students more autonomy to learn and grow on their own. 

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That captures the ethos of Mission InspirEd, as well. “We started our own nonprofit and we didn’t necessarily need any permission from any adults” to do our work, Xie said. 

In the past year, the organization has worked with 30 tutors and more than 40 volunteer class instructors, offering 10-15 classes per season. They’ve tutored more than 75 students and have had more than a thousand students in their classes. 

The creative arts contest generated more than 180 submissions from youth across the country in the forms of personal essays, photography, illustration, stop-motion animation, spoken word and more. The works are on virtual view in the Tales of Quarantine gallery

“A lot of students had their own unique viewpoints about the pandemic and the different ways it’s impacted them and their community,” Yang said. Themes that came up in the students’ works include responses to Asian hate and blame for the coronavirus outbreak, dealing with remote learning and struggling with isolation and social distancing.

Sydney Bottorff, 12, a seventh-grader at Westside School in White Center, created a stop-motion clay animated video called “Days Repeating,” which won the media prize for her age group. The video shows a perpetual cycle of a pink pig rising up and out of bed at dawn and sitting at a desk in front of a laptop screen until sunset. 

“Everything’s blending together and you’re falling into routines that are quite boring,” she explained. In designing the bedroom set for her porcine protagonist, Bottorff said she made it drab to pronounce the feeling of monotony. 

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Yang said he noticed how many pieces, while many depressing, also offered glimmers of hope and resilience. 

Ridhi Rao Gundapuneni, 13, a seventh-grade writing-category winner from Tyee Middle School in Bellevue, said she entered her narrative, “A Stagnant Day in the Lifetime of a Pandemic-Hit Student,” because it was “a great chance to reflect on everything.”

She begins by describing a girl named Izzie and Izzie’s remote school day struggles with computer cameras and mute buttons, and solitary bicycle rides versus classroom chats with school friends. At the end of the story, Izzie is lying in bed and realizes, “One day it would, once more, be safe to stroll outside, and pet any golden retrievers she wanted to, and to rush to her friends.” 

“During the pandemic we’re literally, physically separated and it’s hard to get to know other people,” said Rachel Hu, 17, also a Newport High senior and Mission InspirEd events co-director. Through the Tales of Quarantine entries, she said, “People are sharing intricate aspects of their lives and their emotions during this time. So it’s just a great way to connect with the world, even if there are people far away from you, just learning their stories can make you feel less alone.” 

The Seattle Times Education Lab and student-run educational nonprofit Mission InspirEd will co-host at 4 p.m. on Friday, April 23 in a free, hour-long webinar with winners of the “Tales of Quarantine” creative arts contest. During this virtual reception, participants will hear from the winners, view the entries and listen to the stories behind their submissions. Students will also take audience questions about living and learning during the global coronavirus pandemic. Register: st.news/talesofquarantine

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