November 29, 2021: This article has been updated to reflect the organization's name change from Portland Student Pandemic Response to Portland Student Community Response. A shortened version of this article appeared in the Winter 2021/2022 issue of Portland Monthly.
Back when the Portland Student Community Response was founded in April 2020, it wasn’t quite the bustling student-run nonprofit it is today. First, it had a different name that reflected its genesis—the Portland Student Pandemic Response. Its early website acted simply as a catalog of service opportunities for Portland-area high school students to look through and decide where to lend their skills.
The idea was twofold: to help nonprofits and aid organizations get back some of the financial support and volunteers they were losing due to COVID-19, and to help students who had been locked down in their homes feel a sense of connection.
But PSCR’s evolution now places it squarely 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 readings for children of essential workers, and more. All the while, these projects have been guided by the vision of the students involved, with a focus on a nonhierarchical structure that allows students to generate ideas.
“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,” says Rye Scholin, who founded PSCR with fellow St. Mary’s Academy student Zumee Hasan. Though she’s since graduated from high school, Scholin is still the group’s executive director. “Everything in [PSCR] 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 PSCR and continue to aid it in its evolution.
PSCR'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 5 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 device proficient, PSCR 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 PSCR Vaccine Ambassador and are encouraged to help those confused by the arduous vaccination appointment process. With a little bit of support from the community, PSCR 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 PSCR 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 PSCR activate with a broader focus on social justice, potentially partnering with and learning from other student-led organizations and nonprofits.
PSCR’s catalog has featured volunteer opportunities to support nonprofits including women and children’s shelter Rose Haven, Southern Oregon Fire Relief, Access Building Community, and more. Over the fall, the group’s leadership ran a series of projects focused on spreading awareness of the COVID delta variant, including an interview with Katie Sharff, an infectious diseases doctor at Kaiser Permanente.
“As more people are getting vaccinated and going back to many parts of their everyday lives, our students have demonstrated their interest in helping with more causes beyond COVID-19,” Scholin says. “We want to continue to devote our platform and resources to the issues students care about the most, and let them drive the change they want to see.”