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COVID-19 Vaccine

An Evanston teen has created a website to help elderly residents find where they can sign up for COVID-19 vaccine appointments.

Manuel Martinez/Manuel Martinez/WBEZ

An Evanston Teen Saw How Hard It Was For The Elderly To Find Vaccines, So He Built A Website To Help

While Eli can’t legally drive you to your appointment -- at age 13, he isn’t old enough -- he may be able to help you find an appointment with the new website he built.

It all started when Eli (his family asked that his last name not be used) wanted to help his grandparents get vaccinated. With some persistence and time at the computer, he was able to secure them appointments in Skokie.

“I just looked, I think it was 7 p.m., and a Jewel that was pretty close had released a whole week of appointments,” Eli said. “And I was able to get them both appointments before they all disappeared 20 minutes later.”

Appointments that disappear within minutes are emblematic of the vaccine rollout in Illinois. It has not only been confusing but a technological and logistical nightmare, particularly for elderly residents.

Many of those eligible to get shots have spent hours online trying to secure the precious few appointments. Some have even said trying to get a vaccination is one of the most stressful parts of the pandemic.

But Eli made it a lot less stressful for a good number of people. His grandparents told a friend about his deeds and word traveled quickly far beyond his hometown of Evanston. In days. Eli had helped more than two dozen people get shots, some as far away as Florida. Some people wanted to pay him -- Eli said no. A few sent money anyway that Eli said he plans to donate to charity.

But Eli quickly realized that he couldn’t help everyone who was coming to him. He had his eighth grade homework to do, after all.

And with so few appointments available out there, he didn’t want to have to prioritize anyone. He thought it would be fairer to provide a service where people could find their own slots.

He came across a few sites in other states run by volunteers that aggregated places where you could get appointments. He decided to build his own.

“By the end of the same day, I had a working prototype of how it could work,” Eli said. “Now I’ve gotten volunteers who are helping me update the site.”

He compiled a list of about 100 vaccination locations in Cook, Lake and DuPage counties. The website is no frills, with basic information -- like if the place has open appointments, the address and any contact info and who is eligible.

You can’t sign up for an appointment on Eli’s site, but it does show people where to go to do that. Eli brought on a few volunteers to try to keep the site updated. He’s automated parts of it. He even made a training video. Still, the data can lag, and he said he wants to get more sites up and needs more volunteers.

One of his first volunteers was fellow eighth grader Olivia Ohlson. He and Olivia go all the way back to first grade. Olivia is no stranger to doing good. She’s started her own pandemic project, delivering hundreds of hygiene kits to low-income families. She likes meeting the recipients face-to-face (or mask-to-mask) but even though Eli’s project is anonymous, she finds it just as rewarding. And pretty easy to do.

Olivia watched her friend’s training video.

“It was funny because I was listening to his voice,” she said. “After that, I just looked at the spreadsheet. And I opened the app with the spreadsheet, and I looked at it and did a short tutorial on that. And then I was able to figure it out from there.”

Eli is also training volunteers in their 60s and 70s. Susan Walker found out about Eli’s project through a Facebook post Eli asked his mom to put up with an available vaccination appointment. Walker snapped up the appointment, messaged Eli’s mom, Hillary, a thank you and the two corresponded.

Walker ended up volunteering for Eli’s website and getting an online training from him, but she didn’t realize until a reporter informed her that he was a teenager.

“I was thinking maybe he was 20-ish. So good for him,” Walker said. “We expect big things from you, Eli. This is a big thing, but we wonder what the future is going to hold for you.”

Walker said it’s heartening that community-minded people or service-oriented individuals have come together to create these kinds of aggregations of vaccination sites.”

She added, “They’ve stepped in to fill a void that shouldn’t be there.”

In the meantime, the website gains more and more visitors. Appointments are still extremely limited, but Eli hopes that means more and more people are getting vaccinated.

His parents are undeniably proud, but they will tell you that Eli is still a young teenager.

“We are still trying to get him to fold his laundry and unload the dishwasher,” admitted his dad, Charles.

“I unload the dishwasher,” Eli protested.

“So you do concede that you don’t fold your laundry?” his mother asked.

“I plead the fifth,” Eli said.

This story has been updated to correct Eli’s mother’s first name.

Edie Rubnowitz is a freelancer for WBEZ. Follow her @EdieRubinowitz.

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