By Janice Nesamani
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
When schools in the state shut down in March, teens across the state filled the vacuum with creativity, social awareness, and raw energy. While some used talents to raise funds, others stitched masks or delivered groceries to high-risk individuals. A rising high school senior from Redmond and her friends embarked on a project to help non-native English speakers access trustworthy pandemic information in their own languages. The result: a youth organization called Appily Day with seven global chapters and 34 ‘COVID-19 in 19 minutes’ videos in different languages made by more than 200 teens across the world.
“I was born into a medical family, my mother is a healthcare worker in Washington and my dad is a scientist in China. He is currently developing vaccines for COVID-19,” said Haipei Chen. Her father’s job and news from family and friends in China meant Chen was aware of how serious COVID-19 was before it hit the United States.
“My mother was concerned about bringing the virus home and began isolating herself from the family that includes my grandparents. She even took me out of school a week before school officially closed,” Chen said.
Chen’s grandparents are the reason behind the project she started.
“My grandparents were following the COVID crisis on Chinese social media and Chinese quarantine guidelines,” she said. “They told me to wear masks and quarantine, so I had to tell them about state and CDC guidelines asking us to preserve masks and Personal Protection Equipment for healthcare workers,” she said.
Chen discovered policies and quarantine measures differed by country.
“I noticed an information gap between non-native English speakers in the United States,” she said. “I wanted to educate those who were comfortable with languages other than English, especially teens like me who weren’t that concerned about the virus at the time,” Chen said. Topics she wanted to cover were how contagious the virus was, ways we could protect ourselves, and how we could protect those most susceptible to COVID-19 in our households.
In addition, misinformation like drinking alcohol and disinfectant to kill the virus concerned Chen and she began spreading information to friends and others online.
“My friends in China told me how highly competitive national exams were delayed and sent me pictures of how they used toothpicks to press buttons in elevators,” she said.
Chen first reached out to friends from Asian countries who had heard about how serious the situation was from friends and family overseas, and spoke to them about creating a series of videos to educate people.
“I explained my grandparents’ situation and my idea to get teens like us to translate trustworthy content to different languages for non-native English speakers in the U.S., educating them in the process,” she said.
Sanjali Vuriti, Chen’s classmate since 10th grade, was thrilled at the idea. Vuriti is currently the CTO of Appily Day, a play on the phrase ‘An apple a day.’
“I wanted to do something to help and Haipei asked me if I wanted to come on board. I kept hearing many things that I knew weren’t true, so I thought this was a good way to get involved,” Vuriti said. “It was something I could do from the safety of my home to make an impact,” she said.
Vuriti was aware that a lot of Asian community members did not have access to good information and felt the ‘COVID-19 in 19 Minutes’ video was a great idea.
“I helped facilitate the Hindi and Telegu Indian language groups, update the website, and recruit people,” she said.
To get people on board, the teens used Instagram and cold messaging to gather momentum. Chen and her friends sourced information from trusted sources, primarily the CDC, and compiled it in PowerPoint. She reached out to linguistic students from across the U. S. to get the content translated.
“A lot of students my age said ‘yes,’ as they would get to interact with a community of people our age across the world,” Chen said. “I also reached out to Students for COVID, a medical student association, as we needed someone to check the information after it was translated. We wanted to ensure we got the medical terms right,” she said.
Students for COVID had their own translation team and the organization’s president tapped this resource to help out. In addition, Chen reached out to nonprofits within the U.S. and abroad. Many of them took the lead on certain language videos.
Based in Maryland, Ellen Zhang is a co-founder of 2am, a student-run organization that sheds light on under-reported issues across the world through weekly articles that break down humanitarian, social, and cultural issues.
“I was the project manager for the Mandarin and Cantonese language translations. My job entailed assigning tasks, setting deadlines for different steps in the process, and checking on translators to see that they were updated with information and not getting overloaded,” 17-year-old Zhang said.
“COVID-19 in 19 minutes did a good job of providing information for non-native English speakers. In the U.S., there has been a lot of misinformation, especially conspiracies and theories not backed by sufficient research,” Zhang said.
“For a lot of Mandarin and Cantonese speakers, it is very hard to fact check information provided by the media because of the language barrier. Through COVID-19 in 19 minutes, they can access accurate and holistic information in their own languages,” Zhang added.
The combined effort led to over 200 translators across the world and 34 different videos, ranging from Mandarin and Cantonese to Urdu and Finnish.
“We were surprised at how many wanted to help, but it was great,” Vuriti said.
In addition, the Chinese American Civic Association heard about the project and honored the effort with a gold level sponsorship of $900. However, gold and glory weren’t the only prizes the teens took from the experience. Zhang said the experience enriched her.
“It was a challenge to get people in different time zones on a Zoom call. You also had to check up on translators to make sure they were not overwhelmed. It definitely made me more empathetic,” she said.
Vuriti learned how to effectively communicate across big groups and keep up with deadlines.
“It was amazing to see that a small idea could become so big and benefit so many,” she said.
Chen learned from setbacks the team went through, as many had to drop out due to COVID-19’s impact in their countries. On a personal note, she says the project helped her grow.
“I came to Seattle in my sophomore year of high school. Before that, I lived in Shanghai with my dad, so I had a language barrier,” she said. “This project improved my public speaking skills, helped me overcome the language barrier, and increased my confidence,” she said.
“It also helped me develop leadership skills. I know how to manage projects and it prepared me for the workforce,” Chen said.
Appily Day’s efforts are still ongoing as they continue to spread the word through the videos they created. They are now building a team of researchers and illustrators, planning to start a series of blogs on health and wellbeing, and begin podcasts by experts or those studying medicine.
Check out the organization on appilyday.com and view the videos they created on their YouTube Channel.
Janice can be reached at email@example.com.