FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Technology has been instrumental in connecting people during the unprecedented COVID-19 outbreak. While many are fortunate to have devices readily available to stay in touch with loved ones through phone calls and FaceTime, 19-year-old Kaya Suner realized this isn’t always a universal case, especially with hospital patients who can no longer receive visitors.
The upcoming student at American University saw a means for change, and that’s how COVID Connectors was born.
COVID Connectors is a nonprofit whose mission is to connect sick patients with their loved ones by collecting gently-used iPhones and iPads.
It all started with a FaceTime in early April. Suner’s parents are both emergency room doctors fighting on the frontlines, so while he is isolating from his parents, he constantly keeps in touch with them in this manner.
Suner called his mom, who works at Brigham and Women’s at Patriot Place, expressing an initial interest to sew masks. However, Suner’s mother suggested that since his sewing skills were limited, perhaps he could find a way to address a deeper need she saw at hospitals. Due to visitor restrictions, patients felt very isolated. They craved a way to feel connected with their loved ones, and unfortunately, not everyone had the technology to do so.
“Nobody was dealing with this issue in hospitals because they didn’t have the money or capacity to at the time,” said Suner. “There was no solution. A lot of these patients didn’t have phones or didn’t have access to their phones or chargers to charge their phones, so a lot of them really couldn’t talk to anybody.”
Phones and iPads could help connect patients to their loved ones for regular daily communication, and also be a vehicle for family members to say goodbye to any patients who were in the end stages of life.
“A lot of them are dying,” said Suner. “With no devices, no chargers, a lot of patients didn’t have means talk to anyone. People want to see parties, events, grandchildren being born and they miss out on those opportunities without devices to connect them.”
Upon recognizing this device deficiency, Suner promptly turned to Facebook on April 7 to solicit donations. When he received an overwhelming response of messages, the COVID Connectors began to take flight.
“I reached out to my close friend Christopher Fridlington to build a website for COVID Connectors and I partnered with the Rhode Island Medical Society to collect technology for RI hospitals,” said Suner, who shares the co-founder title with Fridlington. “The response was incredible. We fulfilled our need in RI in a week.”
COVID Connectors immediately picked up traction, fulfilling the 650 quota for Rhode Island hospitals quickly.
“We were very successful in the media, which really helped boost our donations, “ said Suner. “We had been featured on several local news channels and websites. The [Rhode Island] governor [Gina Raimondo] saw us, she gave us a shout out and then Amazon donated 540 devices, which is how we filled need in RI so quickly.
“With a shout out from the governor, a donation from Amazon all in a week, we were just kind of dumbfounded by it honestly.”
Once the Rhode Island quota was filled, Suner was faced with a decision on whether to continue to expand COVID Connectors, and the answer was a no-brainer.
“I was pretty passionate about it and wanted to continue,” said Suner. “We expanded into Massachusetts and New Hampshire. We’re collecting devices for Catholic Medical Center in NH now. Going forward we’re focusing on hard hit hospitals in New York City.”
Suner’s desire to help his local communities stems from his New England roots. As a Rhode Island native, Suner has grown up a New England and Boston sports fan all-around. In fact, he has a particular affinity for the Revs.
Suner went to his first Revs game when he was 12 years old.
"I love soccer,” said Suner. “The [first-ever] game I went to was awesome. The Revs won. I remember going in and thinking I knew a little bit about soccer with the Premier League. I didn’t know a lot about MLS, but there was a really, really big crowd at Gillette and I was so impressed.”
While Suner was impressed by the Revs, the Revolution are now impressed with Suner for his efforts to keep the New England community connected during the COVID-19 pandemic.
To learn more about how you can donate any gently-used devices and the processes to clear them, click HERE.