Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
Camilla Dodson, 76, broke down in tears of relief after receiving personalized instruction on using her smartphone from teenager Tess Reynolds during a free workshop earlier this month at Albuquerque’s Bear Canyon Senior Center.
The event was organized by Teeniors, a 4-year-old startup that connects tech-savvy teens with seniors who need assistance in operating devices such as smartphones, iPads or computers. It’s one of scores of workshops the group has offered at senior centers in central New Mexico, from Belen to Santa Fe.
The events allow participating seniors to pair up with teens for individualized teaching sessions that cover anything the older adult wants to learn, from simple things such as how to lock and unlock a device to taking photos or connecting with friends and relatives on Facebook.
Dodson, a native of Lesotho, in southern Africa, who came to the U.S. with her late American husband in 2000, recently swapped her old flip phone for a smartphone but had difficulty even making calls on the new device.
After her session with Reynolds, Dodson said, she felt liberated.
“Now I can carry the phone in the car and I can make a 911 call if I need, or take pictures,” Dodson told the Journal. “Now I’m free like everyone else.”
Most of the workshops, which have benefited about 1,600 seniors, are offered for free through a partnership with Comcast Corp., which approved a $25,000 grant last year to fund Teeniors events in the mid-Rio Grande area, and another $20,000 this year to continue those workshops and extend them to Las Cruces.
And this month, Facebook approved a $40,000 grant to Teeniors to offer up to 60 free workshops at five senior centers in Valencia County, where Facebook is building a massive data center. The funding is part of Facebook’s Community Action Grant Program, which has pumped about $219,000 into local nonprofits this year, said William Marks, Facebook’s Western Region community development manager.
The company wants to help people use technology to make their lives better, and Teeniors is an “amazing” program, Marks told the Journal while attending the first Facebook-sponsored Teeniors event Dec. 18 at Bosque Farms Senior Center.
“Teeniors takes the next generation of students and links them with generations of adults who didn’t grow up with technology,” Marks said. “It helps make the adults’ lives better and it builds real connections by allowing teens and seniors to share and learn about each other, and the teens are getting paid. Everyone at Facebook just loves this program.”
Comcast spokesperson Julianne Phares said Teeniors matches well with Comcast’s focus on digital literacy and inclusion. It provides jobs to teenagers while also promoting cross-generational relations, she said.
Teaching critical skills
“Working with seniors is a big focus for us, because they’re typically marginalized from today’s digital skills,” Phares told the Journal. “Teeniors provides those skills to seniors while also providing teens and young adults with paying jobs, so it’s a workforce development program as well. It’s a real win-win for everyone involved.”
Teeniors founder and CEO Trish Lopez said the service is less about technology support than about human connections. It provides older adults with digital skills to stay connected with family, friends and community while pairing up teens with seniors in ways that benefit them both.
That’s critical for seniors, many of whom feel marginalized and isolated, Lopez said. “Ageism” compounds the problems, especially when traditional technology support services lack patience and understanding.
“For many older adults, learning to use today’s technology can be as challenging as a young person trying to learn about quantum physics,” Lopez said. “And for young people, Teeniors allows them to earn money while sharing their knowledge with people who are very appreciative.”
Lopez launched Teeniors as a for-profit startup in 2015. Since then, it’s garnered broad accolades, drawing a flood of local and national media attention.
After launching the organization, Lopez earned a spot in the ABQid business accelerator, which provided a $20,000 investment that helped her set up Teeniors at the FatPipe incubator Downtown.
As a business, Teeniors has generated about $133,000 in revenue since 2015.
The company charges $49.95 for seniors who receive individual instruction at Teeniors’ offices, or $59.95 for a Teenior to go to a senior’s home. Group sessions can cost between $300 and $500, depending on the number of seniors attending.
Teens receive $10 per hour for group events, and $15 for individual lessons.
To date, Teeniors has provided about 600 one-on-one teaching sessions. Counting both individual and group events, the program has benefited more than 2,200 older adults since 2015.
From the start, Teeniors has offered many pro-bono group and individual sessions on its own dime for low-income adults. But in 2017, it launched a nonprofit arm, opening the door for grants from organizations and companies to provide services for free.
Since 2017, the nonprofit has received $115,000 in grants from Comcast, Facebook, Hewitt Packard, Blue Cross Blue Shield New Mexico, the Albuquerque Community Foundation and the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association.
About 50 teens and young adults have worked as Teeniors since 2015. About a dozen remain consistently active in the group as others mature and move onto new things.
But many stay on for years because the work is rewarding.
Kaitlyn Akron, an 18-year-old college freshman who joined Teeniors as a 14-year-old student at Rio Rancho High School, is still with the group.
“It’s given me a lot of confidence in myself to talk with people and to realize I can teach others about things that I know,” Akron said. “… It’s really fulfilling. People would think it’s stressful coaching older people, but I love seeing that aha moment when they get it.”
James Morris, an 18-year-old University of New Mexico freshman who joined Teeniors in June 2018, said the money he earns is mostly just a bonus compared with the work experience.
“I’ve learned interpersonal skills that will help me in life,” Morris said. “I’m less intimidated now by elders and see them more as people who I can connect with.”
All 11 seniors who participated in last week’s Facebook-sponsored event in Bosque Farms praised Teeniors for its unique service.
Donald Pacheco, 71, said one teen helped him eliminate a PIN-lock on his phone that’s frustrated him for years, while also showing him how to navigate Facebook and Google Maps.
“Some people just take your phone and do things for you without explaining anything,” Pacheco said. “This young man was patient with me and went over things two or three times. It really helped.”
Maddy McGee, 77, said she’s attended three Teeniors workshops to learn how to troubleshoot problems on her phone.
“I have short-term memory problems after receiving 37 radiation treatments for cancer, so I have to learn one thing at a time,” McGee said. “These kids teach you in a hands-on way. I can’t say enough good things about them.”
Facebook, Comcast help Teeniors reach seniors around NM