Kids & Family

"Big," Meet Your "Mini": How College Students Are Bridging The Generational Divide

They came up with an easy way for seniors and youth to make meaningful connections during this time of isolation and lonliness.

More than 62% of Americans report feeling lonely. Let's change that.

That's the tagline of 'Big & Mini,' a new website that was developed by three college students to give both older and younger generations a chance to connect to someone new who is experiencing loneliness.

The site was the idea of Allen Zhou, a 19-year-old electrical and computer engineer major at UT Austin. Zhou, along with his younger brother Anthony who's a computer science student, and Aditi Merchant, an 18-year-old studying biomedical engineering at the University of Texas, created the site in less than a week.

"It was really a quick turnaround because my friends and I were galvanized into action by the fact that we had found some way to help. We'd been in quarantine for quite some time and were itching to help," Zhou told the Houston Chronicle.

Big & Mini was started by three college students who wanted to help out during the coronavirus crisis. Houston Chronicle

Similar to dating sites like Match.com and Tinder, those who sign up on Big & Mini are asked a few questions to determine their best match. However, unlike the lengthy, complex algorithms used by other matching sites, every application on Big & Mini is looked over by a real person.

Zhou and his team also try to speak with each person ahead of time, both to verify their identities and find them the best possible connection.

"We try to talk to every Mini, and most of the Bigs," he said. "We call as many as we can."

Allen Zhou, co-founder of Big & Mini, used to volunteer at nursing homes where he first noticed the issue of seniors feeling isolated. Allen Zhou

Zhou has been using video conferencing to chat with his relatives in Asia for years, so he wanted to use his experience to make it as easy as possible for people, both young and old, to connect.

The college freshman used to volunteer at nursing homes, so he knows how even during 'normal' times, isolation can be a big issue for the elderly. When the nation started shutting down and visitor restrictions were put in place to protect older residents, he knew the devastation that would cause.

"There are serious mental health issues dealing with social isolation and seniors," Zhou said. "This was always a problem, but now it was becoming major news. It's sad that it took COVID-19 to make people see this was a big issue."

That's were Big & Mini comes in.

While the site can be a lifeline for isolated senior citizens, Zhou says that it's equally as beneficial for the younger generation.

"Both sides are going to gain something," he said. "Seniors have had unique lives, and younger people are going be learning things from them you just can't learn in a classroom."

Aditi Merchant, an 18-year-old studying biomedical engineering, is part of the Big & Mini team. Aditi Merchant/Facebook

To make the site as user-friendly as possible, the group decided to use an open-source video chat service so that people aren't required to download or install any software. Zhou says that people can even choose to connect over the phone if it's easier.

While Zhou hopes to get more seniors signed up on the site, the conversations that have been taking place through Big & Mini have been successful.

Elva Roy, 74, and Daniel Formella, 19, had a recent chat and the two hit it off like gang-busters.

"She's really easy to talk to," Formella said of his "Big" after their second conversation. "I think we're forming a real friendship."

The Big & Mini site launched in early April. Big & Mini

We think it's great that Zhou and his team have come up with a way to connect people who are lonely. We hope they continue with the site after the virus has passed!

How can you start something good?

To sign up to be a Big or Mini visit the organization's website and fill out a short online form.

While the students are currently paying for the expense to run the site out of their pockets, you can help by making a donation.

Let's #StartSomethingGood together!

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