Social distancing guidelines through this summer have limited the ways nonprofit organizations can connect with volunteers, and likewise closed many volunteer opportunities for high school students to connect with their communities and fulfill volunteer requirements at school. Rajdeep Das, a rising senior at Eastlake High school, wanted to fix that.
In the months of experiencing excessive free time and right before starting a different kind of school year, 17-year-old Das founded Connect Volunteering, a nonprofit that aims to build bridges between volunteers and nonprofits in the area.
The organization provides a win-win situation for everyone involved, where volunteering students can discover and connect with new causes and forge meaningful partnerships with nonprofits.
“I was at home thinking about college applications, service hours, etc., and I realized that there was not a single place where I could look for those things,” Das said. “So, I decided that I needed to have a platform where students can look for nonprofits and events that pertain to their interests.”
With the idea in mind, Das contacted Thomas Cepollina, 17, another Eastlake rising senior who is now the chief operating officer of the nonprofit. Together, the duo planned for two months to create Connect Volunteering, which was officially incorporated on June 16. As financial needs increased, they enlisted the help of Swetha Pandravada, 17 and a classmate of Das, to join the team as the chief financial officer.
The team had a slow start. Most of their time was consumed by reaching out to potential nonprofit partners, refining the organization’s brand and website, and mustering the hope to persevere.
“We started completely fresh, and we were doubting ourselves,” Das said of the initial days after they built the website. “All those doubts leave the desk when the community shows their thanks.”
With little professional experience or credibility, their task of connecting with mature and successful institutions was a challenge. According to Das, some organizations refused to work with them because they were too young to be experienced. Others, however, found their age would help their organizations reach out to more young volunteers.
“Some nonprofits are small, so they don’t want to be featured,” said Cepollina. “They don’t want to be overwhelmed.”
However, Das and his team received strong support from many leading nonprofits. Organizations such as the Boys & Girls Club of King County, The Sophia Way, Sending Out Smiles and Teen Feed all showed great interest in the students’ mission and were willing to collaborate. After securing stable partnerships with several organizations, the team started to really help the community by hosting donation events. They have connected over 250 volunteers to service opportunities and have collaborated with 15 non-profits in all.
They also collected over 700 daily necessities through their hosted donation events. The team recently finished their toy drive, inviting people to donate their used toys and then bringing them to Seattle Children’s Hospital locations. Though this was the first activity that the three staff members organized and ran by themselves, the result was exceptional: they received nearly 500 toys in just five days.
“We spent one and a half weeks delivering them to different places,” Das said. “Many random people came, and it made me happy that we are helping not just people in our scope, but also people we don’t know.”
To honor the contributions and sacrifices of frontline workers who dedicate themselves to saving lives during COVID-19, the nonprofit is now running the “Letters to Our Heroes” campaign. They are collecting letters of gratitude from members of the community and distributing them to frontline heroes such as police, doctors and nurses.
“Those frontline workers are risking their health for the public, and they deserve recognition and thanks,” Das said. “We just want people to know that to help the community you don’t need to do much, just a little step.”
In the process of organizing these events, the team received great feedback from their volunteers. Das particularly felt engaged and motivated by the email from the first volunteer they had, who told them that this was the first time in a long time that he felt like he was part of something bigger than himself.
The team is now planning to expand their scope and help more people. So far, most of the volunteers are high school students who want to earn service hours. The team wants to add a more diverse base of volunteers.
Das sees his nonprofit as a key resource to help the community overcome COVID-19 and become more connected in the process.
“At the end of the day, corona makes everyone a little bit tired, missing friends more,” he said. “[We want to] use the momentum to completely unite the community, help everyone get on track, and start their volunteering experience with us. Volunteering is, after all, to give back to our community and those less fortunate than us. It’s bigger than any individual out there.”