UT freshmen start nonprofit to help senior citizens combat loneliness during pandemic

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) – Leslie McMaster and Sabah Jamal were complete strangers from different generations and cultures. Leslie lives in Austin but grew up in western Pennsylvania. Sabah is a University of Texas student who lives in Pearland, Texas but comes from an Indian family.

In June, the pair met online for the first time on Big & Mini, a non-profit website that helps connect older adults and college-aged students.

“It was truly a blind date the first time, because I couldn’t get my camera working.” Leslie said.

The broken camera made a nervous Sabah more so.

“It can be really intimidating to talk to someone much older than you.” Sabah said.

Five meetups later, the pair discovered they have a ton in common. Sabah, an engineering student at UT, discovered Leslie’s background in STEM. They recommend books and movies to one another.

The Big & Mini non-profit partners older adults with college age students to combat loneliness during the pandemic.

“I think last week we were talking about conspiracy theories.” Sabah said.

She enjoys learning about history from Leslie. Leslie enjoys learning about a new generation.

“I thought I had an idea of what was happening with the 20 year olds, but I’m still clueless as an adult. What can I say?” Leslie said with a laugh.

What is Big & Mini

Big & Mini was founded in April by two UT freshmen, Aditi Merchant and Allen Zhou, and a high school junior, Anthony Zhou, who is Allen’s younger brother.

“We came home from college and a lot of the ways we traditionally would volunteer or help out others weren’t allowed during the COVID situation.” Merchant said.

The trio were inspired to start the nonprofit based on conversations they had with older generations during past volunteer work. Borrowing money from their parents, they started the website. It now has signed up about 500 Bigs, meaning older adults, and 500 Minis, the college-aged students.

Membership is free, although the site runs on donations. There are no age restrictions. Participants go through brief training on how the platform works and internet safety. They must then fill out a questionnaire that asks about their common interests.

After the questionnaire is filled out, the Bigs and Minis are placed in a matching pool. The service matches them up, schedules their first meet-up based on information given in the questionnaire, and gives them some conversation starters.

“That way, right off the bat, it’s a little less awkward, because you already know you have something in common. Something to talk about.” Merchant said.

The nonprofit has taken steps to weed out people who could take advantage of the site. The questionnaire has questions about criminal history. Everyone is run through a sex offender screening database. Finally, the nonprofit has post-meetup chats with participants, to make sure the meetup went well and had zero incidents.

Participants use a portal on the website that gives access to video chat and allows them to communicate directly with the nonprofit about their experience. The website uses an open-source video platform, Jitsi, for their video calls.

If a match doesn’t work out, the Bigs and Minis reenter the matching pool to find a new match. Merchant says she herself hasn’t been matched, but most of the people who sign up have and the majority of those matches have lasted beyond one match.

“Even beyond the interests we say they have in common, they start discovering things and interests they have in common that they wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.” Merchant said.

After the first meeting, which is set up by the service, the Bigs and Minis can set up their future meetings through the website. This is done so Bigs and Minis don’t have to give away personal information.

Big & Mini and the pandemic

One of the major goals of the nonprofit is to help fight loneliness. According to one study, 61% of American adults suffer from loneliness. The pandemic has made the situation worse with most Americans spending more time alone or with only a few people.

Leslie and Sabah say Big & Mini has been a blessing during the pandemic, allowing them to meet new people and speak with people outside of their families. They have even made their meetings a priority.

“I shut my daughter out last Wednesday so we could have (our Big & Mini) conversation. I said, ‘go away I’m busy.’” Leslie said.

The pair plan to meet in person once the world returns to normal, hoping they can volunteer together. Until then, they plan on continuing their weekly meetups online.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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