June 24, 2020

On lockdown in New York, a 17-year-old builds community online by volunteering

Jameson Cohen started Circle of Friends, connecting high school students with children of frontline workers.

Jameson Cohen started a virtual resource, called Circle of Friends, for parents who need a little extra help looking after their kids during lockdown.

Grade 12 student Jameson Cohen lasted less than a week in lockdown before he started dreaming up a project to replace school, baseball season and hanging out with friends. The 17-year-old is now busier than if it were exam season, chatting, playing games and sharing stories over video conference from his Upper East Side New York bedroom with children of essential workers across the country.

Jameson is proof that in times of crisis people rise to the occasion with creativity and compassion—and sometimes that means volunteering virtually.

As The City That Never Sleeps slowed to a crawl to stem the tide of COVID-19, Jameson saw a missing link in the guidelines on remote learning. Physical distancing meant students, especially young ones, were missing out on intangibles like human connection, friendship, positivity and fun.

“You can study at home, but it can be hard seeing the same people everyday,” he explains unselfconsciously. “There’s fun in meeting new people, and even more so for young kids with older ones.”

The idea for Circle of Friends was born.

He put out a call to fellow high school students to volunteer as virtual mentors and buddies for younger kids. Then he hit the phones, reaching out to hospitals to explain the services of Circle of Friends, offering video chat sessions—with music or art lessons, trivia games, charades and Pictionary, or just heartfelt conversation—for free, so kids can feel excitement and parents juggling the new normal can have some time to themselves.

[Read more from WE Stories: How adults can empower youth]

Jameson connects the young children with volunteers who share their interests. “It’s virtual, but it’s still bringing people together, from anywhere in the world, to talk about what they love and share that passion,” he explains.

Signups were slow to start, with friends from school coming on as mentors and parents hearing about the opportunity for their young ones through word of mouth. Then, in April, Jameson made an appearance on WE Schools Live, a daily online show to engage and inspire young people. He shared the screen with Dr. Amy Cranston, an expert in social and emotional learning, to talk about the soft skills, like problem solving, gained through volunteering. He also walked away with a WE Volunteer Now grant made possible by The Allstate Foundation, that’s being put to use building a new website and promoting Circle of Friends as well as providing new technology to families without access to the internet so they can benefit from the project.

With the exposure, Circle of Friends’ ranks swelled, as mentors from as far away as Spain and families from Hawaii signed up. The increased attention brought with it unforeseen challenges.

Managing time zones has become tricky, Jameson admits. But it’s a good problem, one that comes with growth.

“At the start, I told my mom, ‘we’re not curing the disease, we’re not feeding the hungry. Is it worth all of this?’” he recalls. Ever the voice of compassion in Jameson’s ear, his mom responded, “If you help 20 families, you’ve made dozens of lives better. If you just help one family, you’ve made at least one life better. That’s enough.”

Now, more than ever, it’s important to find ways to lift others up. Volunteering, Jameson says, has been a powerful way to do that. The WE Volunteer Now campaign has fun and creative ways to volunteer virtually. Here, Jameson shares his top tips for making a difference during the pandemic.

  • Brainstorm. “This idea was one after many. The rest ended up on in scrap,” Jameson says. “This one came to me after a lot of thinking. That’s the number one thing I’ve learned in service work, you have to really brainstorm to come up with solutions.”
  • Jameson started Circle of Friends—but you don’t have to start your own project to make an impact. His first volunteer act during the pandemic was to help out at a local restaurant, delivering free meals to healthcare workers. “Just look for a need that you can fill,” he says.

  • Jameson’s volunteer work traces back to him mom, who modeled empathy and compassion for him growing up. She always taught him to lead with kindness. “That’s the first thing to go in a crisis,” Jameson says. “So start with that. Start with being nice, being kind, being compassionate to people in your life.”

If you want to get involved with WE Volunteer Now and discover ways you can make a difference and volunteer from home, check out all the campaign resources here.

This story, On lockdown in New York, a 17-year-old builds community online by volunteering, was originally published on WE.org. Visit WE Stories for more inspirational stories of impact.

Jesse Mintz WE Day

Jesse Mintz


Jesse Mintz is a lifelong learner and believer in the power of stories to educate and inspire. He knows everyone has an interesting story—it’s just a matter of asking the right questions.
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