She wasn’t setting out to change the world.
When Priyanka Palayekar, a junior at Upper St Clair High School, founded Generations Giving Back, she was just trying to rack up volunteer hours.
“We needed to get a certain number of hours for the (Middle Years Program),” said Palayekar, a member of USC Speech and Debate team and the Innovation, Technology and Entrepreneurship (ITE) club. “I started in the health center of Friendship Village (of South Hills). I started volunteering at the health center in seventh and eighth grade.”
When she entered high school, Palayekar continued volunteering at the health center, where she would gladly have donated her time through graduation.
“And then COVID hit.”
So Palayekar, who enjoyed volunteering, pivoted. She wondered if her passion for technology might be useful to older adults now isolated during the pandemic. She pitched an idea for Generations Giving Back, an intergenerational club not affiliated with USC, to Friendship Village’s director of lifestyle, Kelly Michel, who was happy to help the high schooler set up a technology help desk inside the independent living facility.
“During the pandemic there was a lot of isolation. A lot of what we did as a community was lean toward tech,” said Michel. “You can imagine being an older adult, all of a sudden having an iPad in your hand. (Generations Giving Back) was just a blessing, because now they’re becoming more tech-savvy.”
Palayekar spent a couple hours each week assisting residents with anything from enlarging the print on a computer screen to FaceTiming family, and Michel watched as the 30-minute help sessions evolved into something more than simple troubleshooting.
“One of the things as a lifestyle director, our goal is always intergenerational programming, and Priyanka just took that to another level,” Michel said, noting residents have twice written articles about Palayekar for Friendship Village’s newsletter. “I get letters all the time saying these kids are wonderful. Seeing the different generations learning from each other is wonderful.”
Shortly after establishing Generations Giving Back at Friendship Village, Palayekar expanded the help desk’s hours and days of operations and began recruiting volunteers from school.
Sophomore Priyahsa Itani and freshman Paige Kline both needed volunteer hours and signed up for shifts as part of Generations Giving Back, officially founded at the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year. The three saw how beneficial the program was to both students and residents and reached out to two other local older adult communities.
“I knew about Priyanka’s program from the very beginning and I was very impressed by it,” said Itani, who was recently promoted to branch leader at Paramount Senior Living at Peters Township.
“One of the most encouraging things about this program is just seeing the enthusiasm and excitement from both the residents and the volunteers. Seeing younger people being so excited and engaged with, communicating with older residents and helping them, seeing we’re trying to help them and spend time with them, I think that’s really something that makes them feel good.”
Generations Giving Back recently partnered with The Residence at Bethel Park, where Kline serves as branch leader. The club’s volunteer roster boasts 20 students from USC high school and middle school, and one volunteer from Bethel Park School District.
“Somehow it exploded,” said Itani. “We’re exponentially growing now.”
Interested volunteer candidates fill out an application and, based on areas of residence and expertise, are assigned to one of the three living facilities. Palayekar schedules volunteer shifts with availability and fairness in mind.
“Our volunteers, they might need their hours. And that’s fine, because we needed our hours at one time,” said Palayekar. “But they should have some substance. If you just show up to fulfill the two hours a month requirement and get your hours that way … that’s not volunteering.”
Palayekar instituted a feedback system, where residents present stickers to volunteers who are helpful, respectful and kind, and most young people who arrive at their shifts are there not to rack up hours or stickers, but to forge relationships with residents.
“I’m done with my hours, but I’m still here because I just love the people,” said Kline. “It’s not, ‘OK, this is fixed. You’re done.’ It’s just nice to get to know them because they have very interesting lives. Some of these residents have done really interesting jobs. I know that they did really important things in their life, but I didn’t realize to the degree of how much they’ve accomplished. It’s just so cool to get different perspective on life.”
What began as a one-woman help-desk show will, Palayekar hopes, become a local organization that continues connecting older and younger generations through technology for years to come.
She is seeking to expand Generations Giving Back to other assisted and independent living facilities throughout the Pittsburgh region, and hopes to offer volunteer opportunities to other local school districts.
“We could keep this going for a long time,” said Palayekar. “I want to continue this through college. After I’m done with college, maybe someone else could take over. Basically, make it into a proper organization, club – almost like a nonprofit. That would be really cool.”
The three young women have toyed with the idea of adding art and music programs to their curriculum, and they’re enjoying the responsibility of overseeing volunteers, troubleshooting tech issues from and connecting with the older generation.
“We have a lot of residents who enjoy this program,” said Itani. “It’s just spreading this opportunity to as many students throughout the Pittsburgh area and expanding so that we make sure that this program helps as many people as we can.”