“One student helped a senior start an Instagram account to document her meals”: This guy created a tech-support service that connects seniors with high schoolers
Like many millennials and Gen Zers, Matt McCoy, 24, has fielded his fair share of tech support questions from his parents and grandparents. In October, he and three friends started a volunteer project that connects high school students with seniors in need of tech help, called Student Helpers. Here’s how the initiative came together.
—As told to Andrea Yu
“I’ve always been entrepreneurial, looking for problems to solve. In my first year at Guelph, I used my barbecue a lot and it broke down. I did some research and found that there wasn’t a big company offering a barbecue maintenance service. So I started a business with a friend, called Canadian BBQ Boys, to clean and repair barbecues. In 2019, we appeared on Dragon’s Den and got a $50,000 investment from Jim Treliving. That helped us grow the business until we sold it in 2020.
“While I was in university, I fielded a lot of tech support questions, especially from my grandmother who was in her 70s and lived alone. She would ask me for help with her phone, how to send emails and texts, how to install apps. She also used a laptop and would call me with questions about account setup and management. In 2017, when I was in my third year of university, my grandmother passed away. She was 76.
“During the pandemic, I was getting a lot more tech support questions from my parents and grandparents. For example, my mom, who is 56, is a teacher and needed help shifting online. I taught her how to get on Google Drive. My friends were telling me they had similar requests from their families too about setting up a Facebook account, downloading apps on tablets and getting on Zoom calls with friends.
“One friend said his grandparents got an iPad to help them keep in touch with the family during the pandemic, but it was a big process getting it set up remotely, and they barely ended up using it because they felt bad asking for help. That got me thinking of how many questions just didn’t even get asked because my grandma didn’t want to bother me. I did some initial research and was surprised to find out that there wasn’t any service that existed that could provide basic remote tech support to seniors.
“In May of 2020, I graduated from the University of Guelph and moved back in with my family in Oakville. I took some time off, working on non-profit projects like StartSmart, an initiative that helps students start their own summer businesses, like landscaping or car detailing, while they’re still in school. I also organized projects in the GTA to clean garbage from local trails while raising funds for local relief efforts. In January 2021, I started an alternative search app called FounderNow. We’d connect experts, like lawyers or bike mechanics, with people who had complicated questions that Google couldn’t answer.
“And I continued to help my parents with tech questions through the pandemic. My dad is always concerned about security, and he often me for advice related to protecting his privacy, passwords and properly setting up anti-virus software to protect his documents. In September of 2021, I was hearing from some of my neighbours, who are still in high school, about how difficult it had been to fulfil their mandatory volunteer hours. Remote opportunities were even harder to find. I thought about how high school students were looking for volunteer hours and seniors needed tech help. High school students are well-equipped to answer the kinds of tech questions that seniors ask. So I thought, why not start a project to connect the two?
“I banded together with a few friends—Alex Ryzer, Gamsa Lee and Kayley Brash—with the plan to create Student Helpers, a website with a hotline for seniors to call. One of us would answer, and we’d get information about the problem the senior needed help with. Then we’d post the call to a network of high school students who had volunteered to help. A student would claim the request and call the senior to answer their questions. The good thing about Student Helpers is that seniors know that the students who are calling them are volunteering their time and want to help, which removes any sense of guilt or being a burden.
“In October, we created a basic website in large font to describe our program. Alex put his personal cell phone number as the hotline, but we’ve since switched to a cloud-based telephone service so that the four of us can take turns answering calls. At the same time, we cold-called about 50 community centres and nursing homes to let them know about Student Helpers. Everyone we spoke to was happy to hear that we were starting a service like this. We sent them posters they could print out and put on bulletin boards. We also posted in local community groups on Facebook to spread the word. To recruit student volunteers, we reached out to local high schools. Guidance counsellors would refer students to our site, and teachers were promoting it in their Google Classrooms.
“Within a couple of days, we had our first call. It was a senior who had a 2008 Mac computer and needed help updating it to the latest version. Since then, we’ve had a steady stream of calls. Another senior was referred to Student Helpers by her daughter when she had some questions about her iPhone. She told us she had a great experience with our student, Kyle, who was efficient and courteous. One high school student helped a senior start an Instagram account to document the healthy meals she cooks. The student led her through the steps of making an account and then demonstrated how to use advanced features like filters. The senior was impressed, the student was motivated to continue volunteering and forming more connections with seniors.
“Around 100 students signed up in the first two weeks, and we now have 150 volunteers. We conduct a short phone interview with each volunteer to learn about their previous volunteer or work experiences and their student lives. Then our volunteers get on-boarded through a presentation and Q&A so they know what to expect. It mostly covers soft skills, like the importance of patience, and how to make sure the seniors feel safe and comfortable. We host training sessions in batches over Google Meet.
“We have everyone in a Whatsapp group where we send out messages when new requests come in. Then, students can claim a request if they’re available. The average request gets accepted in less than 25 seconds; our students are very eager to help. The calls will last anywhere from 15 minutes to three hours, depending on the complexity of the question and the senior’s skill level. That three-hour call was someone who wanted to learn more about social media. The student helped them create a Facebook account and showed them all the different tools and functions. The student stayed on the phone with them and helped them create their first post.
“The overhead to start the project has been really low—less than $50 for the website, domain and telephone service. But our costs will increase as the demand goes up because the cloud service we use charges by the minute. We’re going to apply for grants and seek out corporate sponsors to help with costs as they increase.
“Our vision is to take Student Helpers across North America. We have an aging population, and technology is always advancing. So we think that these tech-support questions will never go away. We eventually want to go beyond technology questions. There’s a worker shortage in the senior support field, so we’d like to take on some work from personal support workers, nurses and people who work with seniors directly. For example, we could help seniors order groceries online or get their prescriptions delivered to them. Or if seniors are feeling lonely or isolated and just want to talk to someone, we can help with that too.
“It’s been really meaningful to see this project come to life. In early November, I accepted a call from a senior woman in Oakville, where I’m from, who said she heard about us from her friends. She said she had a million technology questions, like how to set up an Amazon account to order an item that was hard to find. Our service, she said, was an absolute lifesaver. She had been frustrated about how everything stems back to technology, and that really resonated with me. It was good validation that there are lots of people out there who have questions, but they don’t have anyone to contact for support. I’m really excited about where this project could go.”