During the COVID-19 pandemic, 17-year-old Shawn Martinez realized how much isolation and loneliness was spreading through older adults without human connection. Martinez consulted his support system and made the jump to create his own nonprofit, AVUS Connect, to match student volunteers with older members of his Miami community.
From his service and leadership, Martinez was awarded the United Way of Miami Outstanding Youth Award in 2022 and the 2022 Public Service Award from the Florida Council on Aging.
Describe your volunteerism with AVUS Connect.
So Avus is actually the Latin word for grandfather, and two years ago I created AVUS Connect after witnessing the effects of isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic. I always had a strong interest in community service and technology. Quarantine restricted interaction and contact with my family, so I looked for a platform that was intuitive and simple to create connection when it seems hard to. I used FaceTime and other virtual platforms to connect with my grandfather and immediately saw the potential of these internet applications to really facilitate meaningful conversations between generations.
I was familiar with Zoom and the virtual meeting platforms because of school, and after speaking with counselors, family, my friends and my amazing support system, I was encouraged to run with my idea. Today, I’m the president of AVUS and I share the responsibility of volunteer participation and community affairs. I eventually partnered with United Healthcare because they had the experience and community partners needed to impact hundreds of seniors. They enabled me to recruit students from various schools, not just high schools, in my community and I began to understand the true role that nonprofits serve.
What programs and activities do AVUS Connect volunteers do with older adults?
A part of my role is to find volunteers who are willing to have daily or weekly conversations with older adults who are living at their homes with health aids instead of in nursing homes. We do those conversations both in person when it’s safe and online. So they really just speak with them and learn about their lives.
Also, our volunteers have partnered with other organizations in our community to donate around 15,000 meals to people in need, 850 of which were older members of our town. We’ve also received 2,000 tablets so instead of just phone calls and FaceTimes, our seniors can have their own tablet to communicate and connect with.
Why is intergenerational volunteerism so important?
Intergenerational volunteerism is extremely important because two generations engaging in dialogue, especially in an age where misinformation is so widespread, helps us understand one another. It helps minimize loneliness and isolation, and even raises awareness to combat it. One of the goals I have for our volunteers is to create a taskforce of students who can visit and speak with local government representatives and city officials about intergenerational volunteerism; I want it to be a model for other programs across the nation.
Do you have a favorite memory with AVUS Connect?
I remember my first dialogue on the other side of an AVUS Connect phone call was a friend of my grandfather’s. Like my family, he was from Cuba, and he emigrated to the United States when he was 20 years old. So for two hours, he spoke about his journey and experience as a political refugee. From that conversation, I was given a brief summary of Cuba’s history, but really a greater appreciation for the sacrifice my grandparents made when they decided to leave their country of origin.
What have you learned through your experience as a volunteer?
I’ve learned the value of interaction. I’ve witnessed the connection between isolation and health and how isolation declines with more human interaction. Through AVUS, I’ve learned the significance of a phone call or just a simple dialogue with a friend or relative. I’ve also learned about the niche of service that nonprofits can help fill in addressing issues for underrepresented community members.
Why is it important for others to get involved with causes they care about?
The feeling of volunteering is unparalleled. Community service is seen as a two way street, so you’re just not giving, you’re also gaining a sense of purpose and insight within your community, and a perspective of another person’s life or experience. So often we place relationships in the backseat. Our mental and physical health deteriorate without meaningful contact and dialogue, so we really should prioritize relationships and service with others.
Are there any partnerships, programs or events that you are excited about?
Nothing too specific, our goal really is to just expand to other counties and surrounding areas. Right now we work with like six high schools, most of them private, so I really want to work with local governments to see if my project could be a model for other clubs. We’re really trying to work and write grants to see if we can secure more funding.
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Shawn? Find local volunteer opportunities.