Although Lisa Griffis, a senior citizen from The Woodlands, Texas, and Alanis Ymbernon, a junior exchange student from Barcelona attending The Catholic University of America, have never seen each other in-person, they regularly chat via Zoom about art and travel. The pair met through the website Big & Mini, a platform created by UT students meant to bring senior citizens and young adults together during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Biomedical engineering sophomore Aditi Merchant founded the website along with Allen Zhou, an electrical and computer engineering sophomore, and his brother Anthony Zhou. Merchant said they came up with the idea through their experiences volunteering in nursing homes. They wanted to help foster human connections during quarantine when many people, especially seniors, lived in isolation.
“We really valued the connections that we had made with older adults and … hearing all their incredible, unique stories,” Merchant said. “After everything happened with COVID, something we noticed was that if we were feeling lonely, they were likely feeling significantly more lonely because they couldn't even go out to do things such as get groceries.”
The website has had nearly 400 signups globally, extending to countries such as France, New Zealand and China, matching senior citizens and young adults through shared interests.
Ymbernon said she was nervous meeting Griffis for the first time, but said they were a good match.
“I had never done this before, and I thought it would be awkward,” Ymbernon said. “But then once I meant Lisa, she was nice and really friendly. … She explains all of her experiences, and it's super amazing and it inspires me so much.”
Griffis said they bonded over their love of art, as Griffis was into photography and Ymbernon makes and sells jewelry. Griffis said she even bought earrings that Ymbernon made.
“We hit it off really well,” Griffis said. “Although this isn't in person, it’s fun to talk to younger people to get their ideas, especially from another country, because it’s a weird time for the United States.”
Merchant said that she thinks the connections made on the site will extend beyond the COVID-19 outbreak.
“I think (people) really value the connections that they make here,” Merchant said. “Once quarantine ends, I think instead of viewing it as, ‘Okay, no need for this platform anymore,’ they're almost viewing it as, ‘I can finally meet you in person,’ ... which is something really cool.”