Editor’s note: This is one in a periodic series called Stepping Up, highlighting moments of compassion, duty and community in uncertain times. Have a story we should tell? Send it via email to newstips@seattletimes.com with the subject “Stepping Up.”

The pandemic has made it challenging for many of us to accomplish what we’d hoped, but several Seattle-area young people are working on interesting, cool and innovative projects right now. Here are some of them.

Creating animated videos

Annika Chan, 14, and Emmy Yang, 14, both in eighth grade at Eastside Preparatory School in Kirkland

Annika Chan and Emmy Yang created an animated video about stabilizing the world population, and are now working on animations on climate change. (Population Connection)
Annika Chan and Emmy Yang created an animated video about stabilizing the world population, and are now working on animations on climate change. (Population Connection)

Annika and Emmy have many interests — Annika loves anime and playing cello, and Emmy spends her time practicing ballet and traditional Chinese dance. But they both enjoy drawing. For a final school project last year, Emmy and Annika submitted a video to an organization committed to stabilizing the world population, Population Connection.

The two had been learning about how education and economic opportunities for girls can lead countries out of poverty. “We branched off that. Why don’t we not just teach girls, but teach everyone? Because then you’ll get a better environment,” Annika says.

Neither had tried animation before, but they jumped in. Annika concentrated on art while Emmy worked on scripting and voice recording. They struggled to pare their ideas down to 60 seconds, but they got it done.

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On May 5, they learned they took first place among middle schools in the Ensuring Economic Opportunity category against dozens of international candidates. “I was really surprised,” Annika says.

Now, they’re at work on a new series of animations for their school’s student organization, The Tomorrow Project, which focuses on climate change. “We have a marshmallow-ish character with a little leaf on top of his head,” Emmy says. “I think it’s cool to see everything come together. It’s just an idea but then you have a product.”

 

Delivering groceries to community members

Alex Escarcega, 18, new graduate from Northgate Middle College High School in Seattle, and Akitchita Takenalive, 17, studying for his GED at Shoreline Community College 

Alex Escarcega is delivering groceries to at-risk members of the community through the Urban Native Education Alliance. (Akitchita Takenalive)
Alex Escarcega is delivering groceries to at-risk members of the community through the Urban Native Education Alliance. (Akitchita Takenalive)

Every Saturday, Akitchita and Alex have been delivering groceries to keep the most at-risk members of their communities safe during the coronavirus pandemic. They’ve been working through the Urban Native Education Alliance (UNEA), a culturally responsive support organization that they’ve been members of for years.

Akitchita Takenalive is delivering groceries to at-risk members of the community through the Urban Native Education Alliance. (Alex Escarcega)
Akitchita Takenalive is delivering groceries to at-risk members of the community through the Urban Native Education Alliance. (Alex Escarcega)

Because they’re young and healthy, Alex and Akitchita feel it’s the right thing to do. They take all the recommended precautions including wearing gloves and masks and avoiding touching their faces.

Alex remembers one of the dozen families they’ve delivered to. “We just kept handing them groceries,” he says, one bag after another, plus a printer and a computer and jump rope. “They didn’t expect all that.”

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The deliveries have their share of challenges, like super-specific requests for kitchen supplies (“People need their no-scratch sponges!” Akitchita teases) or ingredients they’ve never heard of. The process takes several hours and involves shopping for a lot of groceries, but they take it with good humor.

“We have fun,” Alex says.

Grant money initially funded the UNEA grocery and goods purchases, but it’s running out so the organization is asking for donations to continue the work. “I know [the coronavirus] isn’t going to end any time soon,” Akitchita says.

 

Making handwashing stations

Mehr Grewal, 13, seventh grader at Odle Middle School in Bellevue

Mehr Grewal set up handwashing stations at community centers in Renton and Bothell. (Anita Chopra)
Mehr Grewal set up handwashing stations at community centers in Renton and Bothell. (Anita Chopra)

Not everyone has access to hygiene services during this health crisis. That’s something Mehr Grewal wants to change. In early May, she built and installed two handwashing stations at community centers in Renton and Bothell. She fastened spigots to five-gallon buckets filled with water, bought a basic soap dispenser, and attached sanitizing solution spray bottles to clean the spigot before use.

Next to the station, Mehr set up colorful chips and a slotted box to count how many people come by. “I’ve been getting 50 to 60 people who are washing their hands per day,” she says.

Since early May, she has set up five more of these units outside soup kitchens, grocery stores and other places across the Greater Seattle area, with more on the way. They cost about $35 and have mostly come from her own savings, along with a donation from Home Depot. “I hope to put more hand hygiene stations across the city outside places like churches, soup kitchens, community centers and other places,” she says. She’s making and collecting masks so that she can distribute those at the stations, too.

When she’s not working on handwashing stations, she’s moderating Zoom calls with her peers about anxiety, the lockdown and bullying through a platform she created, Youth Engagement Forum. “It’s really helpful to hear from different teens in different situations and bring different perspectives to the table,” she says.

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Supporting young people with autism

Jay Pierce, 17, junior at Ballard High School in Seattle and full-time Running Start student at Bellevue College

Jay Pierce is speaking out on how to support teens with autism during these social-distancing times. (Suzanne Pierce)
Jay Pierce is speaking out on how to support teens with autism during these social-distancing times. (Suzanne Pierce)

Lockdown is hard for everyone, but it may be extra challenging for young people with autism and the parents who love them. To help, Jay, who has Asperger’s, recently spoke at Seattle Children’s Autism 200 series to provide parents with tips on how to support autistic teenagers during social distancing. And Jay is now filming a short video to encourage young people with autism as the pandemic continues, tentatively titled “Dealing with Quarantine.”

“A lot of people used to live on really strict schedules or really miss their peers,” Jay says. “I want people to know, hey, you’re not alone.” While the audience he’s speaking to is specific, he thinks the message is helpful for neurotypical people, too.

Ryther, an organization providing therapeutic services to young people, will be distributing the video through their social and email lists. Jay participated in their summer program in 2012 and 2013, where he expanded his social skills like having timely conversations and beginning friendships.

These aren’t Jay’s first forays into public speaking — in October of last year, he spoke at TEDxYouth@Seattle about neurodiversity. It’s a subject he’s hoping to learn more about during his internship this summer at UW’s Research in Autism and the Brain Lab (RAB Lab).

 

Creating local restaurant listings

Sophie Sajnani, 14, freshman at Newport High School in Bellevue

Sophie Sajnani created a website with listings of Bellevue restaurants. (Nancy Sajnani)
Sophie Sajnani created a website with listings of Bellevue restaurants. (Nancy Sajnani)

For Sophie, local restaurants are about more than food — they’re about community. She loved meeting up with friends at a cafe or celebrating at a restaurant after a school dance. When the stay-at-home order forced restaurants to shut down or turn to pickup and delivery, she wanted to help.

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Sophie is passionate about computer science and has competed in hackathons in the past. She used that knowledge to quickly create BellevueBites.com, a listing of local restaurants providing discounts for customers who place their orders directly rather than through an app.

“Unlike UberEats and other food apps that will charge a service fee, we’re a completely free promotional platform,” she says. The website features restaurants in both Bellevue and Seattle. Sophie hopes in time it will be useful for the entire West Coast. She also partnered with a Washington artist to design T-shirts with the Bellevue Bites branding. The proceeds from T-shirt sales goes to Frontline Foods Seattle, which provides meals to health-care workers.

Sophie is an only child and staying at home has been kind of lonely, she says. Bellevue Bites has helped with that. “It’s given me a drive and sense of purpose.”