6 min read
Sam Keusch has a bar mitzvah coming up. And per tradition, he was in search of a special mitzvah project, or good deed, to punctuate his ritual passage into manhood. After watching his father, David, schedule his grandparents for Covid-vaccine appointments — and observing just how overwhelming the process can be for elderly individuals and other non-digital natives — the 12-year-old from Scarsdale, NY knew what he needed to do.
In January, the father and son launched Vaccine Helper, a website dedicated to helping seniors navigate New York State’s besieged online registration system at no cost. All users needed to do was fill out a simple Google form requesting assistance and provide answers to common screening questions, and Sam and his speedy fingers would do the rest.
As eligibility expanded, so did Vaccine Helper’s magnanimity. Sam began accepting intakes from teachers and people with comorbidities. (Dad and other family and friends have pitched in as demand has grown, but Sam remains the primary moderator and facilitator.) And, as of this writing, he has successfully scheduled nearly 2,500 appointments, and most of them have been fulfilled within a day or two of submitting their request.
Sam is a budding entrepreneur whose bottom line is the greater good, and at the end of a recent school day — he’s elected to finish the year remote learning from home so he can continue multitasking his mitzvah — he checked in with us via Zoom from his oversized, swiveling gamer’s chair to fill us in on the experience of using his tech savvy to serve his community and how it was, in fact, hours of playing video games that readied him for the task.
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The room you’re in looks like a gamer’s paradise. Does all that gaming actually help make you adept at scheduling appointments?
It really does, actually. When you’re refreshing your page [on the New York State site], everyone’s always going for the same button, and I can always get it. And it helps that I have good, wired internet, so everything refreshes quicker for me. Plus, I play video games, so I have a humongous advantage.
Take us back to Vaccine Helper’s origins. What were your expectations?
After my dad started helping his friends, I decided to help him out. But after a while, we decided it would be a more organized, better way to get appointments if we had a website. We were only expecting to get like 100 appointments. We didn’t think we were going to. That was the goal.
And did you have any experience before this with building a website or a blog?
I have a blog. When I was in elementary school, they required us to blog for certain things. But [Vaccine Helper] isn’t like a real website. It’s a Google website, so there’s no coding involved. It was pretty simple to set up. I think I was able to do it in 30 minutes to an hour. It wasn’t very complicated.
There was never a moment where you panicked and thought you took on too big a project?
There’s never been any real times I was like that. At the beginning, I was a little nervous. We only had like 20 appointments, but we were like, “Wow, that’s a lot of appointments.” At that time, there were like no vaccines. This was January.
So when you’d get frustrated, how did you brush it off?
Oh, I’d just run around my basement. I have a pretty big basement. I’d just run around, throw a ball at something, then come back and get some more appointments.
You can only handle so much while juggling school. How did you manage the growing volume of requests?
Besides my family, my dad has some of his friends help him out. Since they work from home, they can maybe get on a call and make some appointments. Plus, one of them is really good with Google Sheets, and she highlights them to tell us who is prioritized.
Has this taught you anything about your abilities or potential that maybe you didn’t realize before?
Yeah, I think during this project I’ve grown up a lot and realized how what I do makes an impact on peoples lives. Seeing the emails I get back is really heartwarming.
Has it maybe helped you realize the kinds of things you want to do when you’re older?
I don’t really have an idea, I don’t know. I feel like I have a lot ahead of me, so I’m just gonna make it through high school and then maybe start thinking. I’m still young.
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Have there been any tougher lessons you’ve learned in this process?
There’s a lot of people who are selfish who are like, “Oh, I can’t do that date.” I know you should be flexible, but I did put this question on my website: Are there any times you cannot do it? And then I will make a great appointment, and they’re like, “That second appointment doesn’t work for me. Make me a new appointment.” It’s a little frustrating. You just have to express your emotions sometimes.
Have those experiences made you think twice about whether you’d do something like this again?
Not really. I think I would do doing something like this later. Hopefully, the demand goes down and they can get vaccines, but I’ve never thought about quitting this.
Lastly, what do your teachers think about all this? Are they supportive?
Some teachers don’t say much about it. Some teachers have signed up for it. I did reach out to the school and help some teachers get appointments, which was really good. I hope that my school can get back to normal.