January is usually the month we present our “20 Under 20” honorees, recognizing the extraordinary work students do in the community and for nonprofits. But after the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, divisive politics, and a new reckoning over racial injustice, it didn’t seem right to hold a competition. Instead, we decided to speak with young people who dedicated themselves to helping others and making a difference  — even from behind their computer screens — during an unprecedented year.

Asanshay Gupta, Atlanta International School

Asanshay Gupta.

Atlanta International School sophomore Asanshay Gupta, 15, developed an app to help makeshift COVID-19 facilities in India during his summer internship with Allied Medical, which makes high flow oxygen therapy machines. More than 100 medical practitioners are now using Gupta’s app to monitor the oxygen supply and flow rates in their facilities. “My family is from India, so I was hearing many stories of how such a huge country was responding to the pandemic on a huge scale, by making makeshift hospitals in stadiums and other large venues,” he says. “When I heard from my grandfather that the very people who are saving lives in these COVID-19 response centers are wasting valuable time doing tedious calculations that could be easily automated, I designed an app that allows them to easily perform these calculations. I am looking forward to visiting some of these hospitals to see my app being used and getting some real-world feedback, and also continuing some more projects such as my eye tracking power wheelchair for paraplegic patients. I want to see how I can use my interest in robotics to serve my local community.”

Marquel Jones, Cristo Rey Jesuit High School

Marquel Jones.

Cristo Rey Jesuit High School senior Marquel Jones, 18, has been a student leader and community volunteer for years, including creating the monthly Teen Talk Back sessions that have addressed everything from religious tolerance, to LGBTQ youth, to incarceration rates in the criminal justice system. As president of the DECA club, he helped raise $50,000 to renovate the school’s media center, a project put on hold due to the pandemic. Jones shifted gears to assist with the DECA Christmas Tree Giveaway to needy families as well as the 12 Disciples Food Box Drive to provide food security to Cristo Rey families during the pandemic. He has volunteered at Open Hand Atlanta and the Million Meal Pack. “The most valuable lesson I have learned as a volunteer this year is that if you want to see change, you have to be that change,” he says. “I recognize sitting back and hoping that things get better does not actively improve anything. When I put action behind the ideas that I have, I am able to foster real change and that is heart-warming.”

Gabriel Howland, The New School

Gabriel Howland.

Gabriel Howland, 17, is no stranger to giving back to not only the local community, but on a national and international scale. He traveled to Jamaica to help an impoverished elementary school start an organic garden, worked with Native American students on environmental issues in California as a “Bioneer,” founded a drone photography company, mentored at summer programs, and is a member of Dad’s Garage Theatre Company’s youth ensemble. During the pandemic, he coordinated, directed, and edited a play for a summer camp via Zoom. Howland also helped prepare a pre-school for reopening in September and assisted in setting up outdoor classrooms at the New School where he’s a senior. When his grandmother told him that one of her neighbors needed help getting groceries and help around her home during the pandemic, Howland volunteered his time. “I think that the pandemic and 2020, in general, made me realize what type of person I am,” he said. “Hardship really can bring out the best and worst in people, and I hope that this year brought out the best. Honestly, helping other people is what helped me get through this year, especially when it was around gaining a semblance of normalcy.”

Leah Nuffer, Woodward Academy

Leah Nuffer.

Like many others stuck at home due to the pandemic, Leah Nuffer began baking. A lot. Over the summer, the 17-year-old Woodward Academy senior created Leah’s Bakeshop to benefit Families First, an organization that provides mental health support and educational services to those in need. One-hundred percent of the proceeds from the bakeshop are going to the charity. Nuffer also worked with Horizons Atlanta as a K-2 “Literacy Coach” where she tracked the students’ progress, observed classes, set individual goals, met with students individually, and became a cheerleader for their success. “The pandemic actually forced me to discover new ways of being involved in service that I didn’t even realize were possible,” she said. “Not only did I begin to interact with communities virtually, but I also realized that some of the biggest help is done just through organizing programs and raising money. Volunteering for behind-the-scenes work of non-profit organizations is just as important as helping in the face-to-face interactions.”

Maddalena Jones, Holy Spirit Preparatory School

Maddalena Jones.

During the COVID-19 shutdown, Maddalena Jones, 17, created a virtual dance program to keep children physically active and occupied at home while their parents continued to work. The 45-minute classes were also educational, and Jones created tutorial videos to post on social media to remind the children of the skills they had learned. A senior at Holy Spirit Preparatory School, Jones said 2020 helped her to have more patience and be grateful for the gifts we are given. “Teaching these online Zoom classes to younger children was certainly challenging at times for myself because I did not have much experience in this area and I was unsure if the children were really appreciating the classes half as much as the time and effort I was spending putting into them. However, I realized that if I was patient, then everything would work itself out the way it was meant to. Another thing I realized was how blessed I am to have been able to grow up with a wonderful gift such as dancing. Sharing that gift with younger children during the pandemic was really something special and it warmed my heart getting to see the smiles on the younger kids’ faces every time that I would teach a class.”

Zoe Glickman, North Atlanta High School

Zoe Glickman.

The pandemic couldn’t stop Zoe Glickman, 17, and her dedication to combating racism, anti-Semitism, and discrimination against the LGBTQ community. The North Atlanta High School senior developed the idea for a Black and Jewish student coalition and reached out to peers from both those groups as well as community leaders to present the idea of a union. Despite the challenges of COVID-19 and social distancing, Glickman’s efforts resulted in the inception of the first student organization of its kind at North Atlanta. “The most valuable lesson that I’ve learned as a volunteer this year, is to take time to educate yourself rather than sitting and waiting for someone else to do it. By educating yourself, I mean taking time to listen to stories of people whose lives are far different than your own, as well as learning the history behind why a community might be hurt.”

Eli Rubenstein, Ben Franklin Academy

Eli Rubenstein.

Eli Rubenstein, 16, was feeling isolated and lonely during the pandemic, so he came up with an idea to create an online community for LGBTQ teens — the only one of its kind in Georgia. Early last summer, the Ben Franklin Academy sophomore launched “The Closet,” an online chat for teens age 14 to 18 held  every Friday and Saturday night. The online chat events are moderated by an LGBTQ adult to ensure the space is safe, appropriate, and fun. The chats have been such a success, that Rubenstein hopes to create a hybrid of virtual and in-person chats post-pandemic. “Starting ‘The Closet,’ I was able to virtually connect with kids from Georgia who had similar interests and it really gave me a sense of community. We watched movies, talked, and were able to share what we were all going through during a really difficult time. I’m really looking to connecting face-to-face with all the friends I’ve made online and expand our relationships.”

Kaili Stith, Howard Middle School

Kaili Stith.

Kaili Stith, 12, organized a protest in Morningside against police brutality and racial injustice at the height of this summer’s demonstrations, rallying dozens of her classmates and neigbhors to participate. The Howard Middle School seventh grader also designed and commissioned the manufacturing of a line of shirts on Etsy called, Tee Shirts for Justice. The shirts sold out almost immediately and Stith is using the proceeds to put together care packages for local women living in shelters. “I am looking forward to continuing protesting for human rights, but with a larger audience. I look forward to giving back in a way when I can interact with people face to face, that really just brightens up my day when I am able to see the impact I make.”

Charlie Kazazian, Westminster Schools

Charlie Kazazian, left, works with his father on a temporary shelter.

Charlie Kazazian, 16, received the Congressional Gold Medal this summer for his 400 hours of volunteer work with the nonprofits MedShare, Action Ministries, NFCC and Must Ministries. For the last few years, the Westminster junior has worked with the nonprofit Mad Housers, which helps provide temporary shelter for people who are homeless by building individual wood huts. During the pandemic, Kazazian downloaded the hut schematics and built a hut with his dad, which was then deployed to designated locations in Atlanta. He said he wants to continue his volunteer work post-pandemic, including building more huts. “Serving in this way has really helped me get through the pandemic,” he said.

Lucy Sackin, Academe of the Oaks

Lucy Sackin.

Academe of the Oaks senior Lucy Sackin, 18, is a budding social justice advocate and ally to black and trans women. During the pandemic, Sackin sprang into action following the tragic death of Oluwatoyin Salau, which inspired her to do more by organizing a GoFundMe to fund self-defense items for Black and trans women in Atlanta. Her goal was to raise enough money to supply self-defense products to 50 women since Black and trans women are at a high risk of assault. She achieved her goal by using social media and via support from her classmates. “Seeing the lack of response from our own government made me realize just how important it is to work directly with my community,” she said. “I realized that mutual aid is the backbone of any social movement. Protecting and supporting Black women and trans women is so important to me because I want to create more accepting and safe communities for everyone.”

Elli Moraitakis, Greater Atlanta Christian School

Elli Moraitakis.

The pandemic fueled Elli Moraitakis, 17, to continue serving her community with a focus on what could be done rather than what could not. Her first opportunity arose when The Schenck School needed their alumni to help encourage students struggling with virtual learning. Understanding the complex issues of dyslexia, Moraitakis presented via Zoom a list of successful tactics she was employing during the lockdown. She and her family helped pack 300 “Bags of Love” for people who are homeless with toiletries, non-perishables and a hand-written word of encouragement or Bible verse. The Greater Atlanta Christian School junior also volunteered to package and deliver more than 3,000 orders during the virtual Greek Festival at her church, the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation. Over the holidays, she performed random acts of kindness to mark the 12 days of Christmas, including raking leaves, paying for someone’s food at the drive-thru, and buying blankets for people who are homeless. “Even in the hardest of days, there si always something good that can be done,” she says.

John Edwards, DeKalb Agricultural Technology and the Environment

John Edwards.

John Edwards, 14, has devoted himself to helping others affected by the pandemic and racial injustice. At New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, he has volunteered in food drives every Saturday since the pandemic began and assisted with organizing virus testing for the community. He participated in marches against racial injustice both in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. and created his own company, Empire Films, to make a documentary, “Through the Black Lens,” about the impact COVID-19 has had on families and schools. All the profits received from the documentary will go to helping communities and organizations such as Hosea Helps and the NAACP. A student at DeKalb Agricultural Technology and the Environment, said he was humbled by the people he met and things he witnessed during 2020. “The pandemic and 2020 in general, strengthened my resolve to give back to the community, specifically helping to cut down the shortage of food resources and everyday necessities, such as toilet paper,” he says.

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.