About a year ago exactly, in April 2020, Rye Scholin and Zumee Hasan—both students at St. Mary’s Academy in downtown Portland— founded Portland Student Pandemic Response, an online-based, student-run nonprofit. Back then, it wasn’t quite the bustling nonprofit making moves that it is today. Its early website acted simply as a catalog of service opportunities for local students to filter through and decide where to lend their skills. The idea was twofold: 1) to help nonprofits and aid organizations get the help they were losing as a result of the statewide social distancing efforts, and 2) to help students who had been locked down in their homes and experiencing isolation feel a sense of connection.
PSPR’s evolution since its founding places it in the mutual aid arena, stepping in to help where other systems have failed. Students involved have aided in supply and food donations, mask making and safety tips, YouTube story reading for children of essential workers, a summer action team, student impact projects, and more. All the while, these projects have been guided by student visions, with a focus on a nonhierarchical structure that allows ideas to generate and flourish.
“My favorite part about all of those people coming together is them sharing their perspectives, and their perspectives contributing to our work and the impact our work can make,” Scholin says. “Everything in PSPR is student driven and student built—every step of the way, every single project is driven by the students. We are not telling them, ‘This is how you can make an impact.’ They are telling us, ‘This is how you can make an impact.’”
All of this means hours on end in front of a screen—every day. Every meeting, every class, every interview (Scholin and company have done many in the past few days), there’s a Zoom password and some prescheduled, preordained time to meet and discuss. It can be exhausting.
But Scholin isn’t swayed by the amount of screen time she’s experienced this past pandemic year. It’s not fatigue she feels. It’s excitement.
“I really like being on Zoom,” Scholin says. “I like talking to people and I like the fact that we can just see and connect with people that are all the way across the city instantaneously, and I think that’s pretty fun.”
Those connections are what’s helped birth PSPR and continue to aid it in its evolution.
PSPR's most recent project: an interactive vaccine text line that helps Oregonians find and schedule nearby COVID-19 vaccine appointments. With eligibility now open to all Oregonians 16 and older, Scholin and Cole Songster, a senior at Grant High School, hope the new Vaccine PDX tool can help aid the state in its vaccine distribution. But Songster, project lead for the Vaccine PDX tool, says not everyone is an “internet native.” To help the folks who may not be as internet and mobile proficient, PSPR also launched a vaccine ambassador program that trains students on how find out if one is eligible for a vaccine, how to find a vaccine appointment, and general appointment information. After completing a quiz, students are certified as a PSPR Vaccine Ambassador and are encouraged to help those confused by the arduous vaccination appointment process. With a little bit of support from the community, PSPR is hoping to keep the text line running for as long as there is a demand for vaccines.
The realities of high school look vastly different than from what they were even just a year ago, but “in some ways,” says Songster, “the different high school experience that we’re going through currently allows us to participate in this more.” It is exhausting, no doubt, shifting from Zoom meeting to Zoom meeting, from school to nonprofit work. By the end of the day, Songster often has that feeling of “your brain releasing all of this tired energy that you’ve been holding in because you’ve been keeping a face and an attitude for a camera because it’s constantly on you.” But that’s where PSPR was born—in a virtual space, out of necessity from a highly contagious coronavirus. And it's working for them, even if it is sometimes fatiguing.
As the state begins to transition out of pandemic mode, Sholin says she hopes to keep virtual interaction as an option forever—or as long as the nonprofit lasts. And if and when the coronavirus is officially behind us, she envisions seeing PSPR activate with a broader focus on social justice, potentially partnering with and learning from other student-led organizations and nonprofits.
Scholin and Songster are set to graduate this year, but both plan to still be involved with PSPR, albeit in different roles. For Scholin, she says she’ll step down from the day-to-day operational tasks, but will still be around for guidance and other things. She hopes, though, to pass it down to other students, and that they’ll pass it down to other students as well, and so on and so forth until who-knows-when. She likes the idea of watching it grow and evolve even without her direct involvement. She smiles and says, “I think it’s fun.”
And when she thinks about what it feels like to watch this seed of an idea sprout into a full-fledged nonprofit, she thinks for a moment and says, “I think it’s cool.”