Camps & Kids | Teen techies help older generation get comfy with computers

If it seems that teenagers have an innate ability to navigate modern devices, consider that high school students never saw a world before web browsers. For this generation of so-called “digital natives,” downloading music onto an iPod is as natural as setting a needle on a record was for a teenage baby boomer.

And so when Josh Lauder, a 17-year-old junior at the Menlo School in Atherton, volunteered to help seniors at the Moldaw Residences with their technological devices, he was quickly able to troubleshoot problems.

For instance, he searched through one woman’s computer and found a picture she had lost of her granddaughter.

Josh Lauder helps Barbara Read. photo/courtesy of barbara lauder

“She printed out the picture and five more copies of it,” said Lauder, who has since organized several groups of teens to volunteer at the independent senior living facility on the Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life in Palo Alto. “She said she wanted us to come by every week. She was overjoyed.”

Lauder led his first cohort of approximately 10 teens to the Moldaw Residences as a high school community service project when he was a freshman. He has led two more trips this school year, and despite having satisfied his high school’s community service requirement, he will lead another two groups before the end of the year.

Lauder, who lives in Atherton, brings along high school classmates as well as fellow former board members of the South Peninsula Jewish Teen Foundation, a group sponsored by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation that helps teens raise money to support causes of their choosing. Lauder served on the board last year.

“It’s always nice to get other people involved and unite people,” said Lauder, who organized the first visits with high school classmate Brock Cozad. “There can be a lot of separation between the generations and I think it’s always nice for teens to work with seniors.”

The young volunteers are eager to talk to their elders about technology, Lauder said.

“I love to watch kids being so passionate and sharing what they love with seniors,” said Lauder, who previously attended Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School in Palo Alto. “I see smiling faces everywhere when I’m there and I think that’s the main goal.”

At the beginning of the sessions, the residents and teens assemble in a common room; then they pair up based on which student has the expertise to best help someone with a particular problem. 

Often the seniors have questions about using email, opening attachments and figuring out how to use new devices, Lauder said. Others are simply interested in learning about the most useful ways of using a computer.

Bee and Manny Cherkas are among the more computer-savvy residents who worked with the kids. Bee, 75, said the teens found an “ingenious” way for her to transfer documents directly from her scanner to her flash drive, and helped her husband, Manny, find a way to circumvent a hardware problem with his tablet computer.

Manny, 81, noted that the residents had a wide range of experience with technology — from a lot to a little — but that everyone seemed pleased with the assistance they received.

“Some of the residents didn’t know anything about computers,” he said. “[The teens] were very understanding of this and they were explaining things very carefully.”

“We really have a mindset that you have to be patient with them,” Lauder said. “It can be hard to be patient with your own grandparents sometimes, but when you’re working with a stranger, it’s hard to be impatient.” 

Lauder first got the idea to volunteer after helping his grandparents navigate their Apple devices.

“I found it was really rewarding to see my grandparents become self-sufficient in using technology,” he said. “I know that technology can be as big a part of their lives as it is of mine.”

He added that the volunteer work at Moldaw was “a blast.”

Bee Cherkas echoed the sentiment that both the older and younger generations get a lot out of the program.

“It was very gratifying for the seniors to have these young people [who are] so dedicated that they’re willing to give their time, “ she said, “and it seemed very gratifying for the students themselves.”

George Altshuler
George Altshuler

George Altshuler is the rabbinic intern at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. He is on track to be ordained from Hebrew Union College in 2023. In 2012 and 2013, he worked as a calendar editor and staff writer in J.’s newsroom.