Benjamin Kagan, 14, spent winter break remotely navigating the COVID-19 vaccine system in Florida, where his grandparents became eligible for their shots in early January. When his grandparents in Arizona became eligible for vaccines, he spent hours scouring that state’s various sites and systems for availability.
He secured shots for those grandparents and his grandparents in Indiana. A few weeks later, when the employees at his parents’ wholesale food company, Good to Go Food, became eligible under Illinois’ group 1b, Kagan started tracking down vaccine appointments for them.
“If you’re not super internet savvy, it’s a really hard system to understand,” Kagan told me. “One of my grandparents told me, ‘I don’t know how to refresh a page.’ It’s super difficult information that needs to be processed super quickly.”
In early February, a CBS reporter visited career day at Francis W. Parker, where Kagan is a freshman, prompting Kagan to tune into the news that night. That’s where he saw a story about Chicago Vaccine Hunters, a Facebook group created by Chicago resident Roger Naglewski to help connect available vaccine appointments to folks who need them.
“I was like, ‘I have a knack for this,’” Kagan said.
Kagan joined the group and wrote a post offering to help anyone who needed it. Requests started pouring in through Facebook Messenger. He set up and shared a Google form that feeds into a spreadsheet and started keeping track of people who needed vaccines alongside spots where vaccines became available.
As of Sunday, Kagan estimates, he’s connected 115 people — perfect strangers — to vaccines in and around Chicago.
“I told him, ‘I can’t believe you’re 14,’” Pamela Van Deventer said. “He said, ‘Do you want to talk to my mom?’”
Van Deventer, 69, is one of the people Kagan connected with a vaccine. She has two autoimmune diseases and said she started to self-quarantine last February, before the World Health Organization even declared the novel coronavirus a pandemic.
The week before she connected with Kagan through Facebook, she said she spent 80 hours logged onto three devices trying to secure a spot. Kagan found her an appointment last Thursday.
Lisa Lorentzen, 70, joined Chicago Vaccine Hunters on the recommendation of her grief counselor, who she started seeing after her husband passed away in April.
“I’ve practically been in tears trying to figure out how to get a vaccination so I can see my family again,” Lorentzen said. “Within 30-40 minutes of joining the group, Benjamin hops in and says, ‘Let me see what I can find you.’”
On Tuesday, Lorentzen is scheduled to receive her first dose at the Walmart Supercenter on Diversey Avenue.
“Thanks to Benjamin,” she said. “And my deceased husband. He’s a good guardian angel. Hopefully he’s watching over me to make sure they don’t run out.”
Hallie Palladino is a mom of two students at Rogers Park Montessori School. She’s been working with the The Montessori School of Englewood, a Chicago public charter school, to locate vaccinations for Englewood residents.
“We’re seeing the vaccine inequity and the barriers to getting the vaccine in the communities that are most impacted by the virus,” Palladino said.
Palladino got connected to Kagan through Chicago Vaccine Hunters.
“We’re talking on the phone and he’s explaining his spreadsheet to me and all of a sudden he gets a text,” Palladino said. “‘Hallie, I have 10 appointments that just came up for tomorrow for 65 and over. Would you be able to get 10 of your Englewood folks?’”
Kagan said an employee at Provident Hospital of Cook County on East 51st Street had texted him to say the hospital was defrosting more doses. That was Thursday.
Palladino said she called her Montessori School of Englewood contacts, who started reaching out to students’ grandparents and great-grandparents, and soon every Friday appointment was taken.
I asked Kagan if spreadsheets are his jam — if he sees his future filled with numbers and cells and data.
“Math is probably my worst subject in school,” he said. “I have a history and English sort of brain.”
But he’s highly organized, he said. He likes to stay busy, he said. And he broke his ankle sledding recently, which required surgery, which then required a sedate recovery plopped in front of a computer screen day and night. And his school was on break Feb. 15-19, so he had plenty of free time to track down appointments and grateful appointment-takers.
Plus, he has a good heart.
“I want to help people,” he said. “It’s really gratifying knowing that you can help save people’s lives. Now that I know how to help, it’s not the kind of thing where I can say, ‘I don’t have time to do this anymore.’”
“He’s an amazing kid,” Lorentzen said. “I told him, ‘Your parents must be so proud of you. I’m so proud of you!’”
“It’s completely beautiful,” Palladino said. “He’s out there saving lives. It goes along with my belief that Gen Z is going to save the world.”
I’m with her. Time and time again, I’m struck by Kagan’s generation’s generous hearts, confident minds and, perhaps most remarkable of all, urgency to act now. Not when they’re older. Not when someone’s paying them to make an impact. Now.
This pandemic has brought us low and laid bare an awful lot of ugly truths. But it’s also revealed beauty. And a 14-year-old kid connecting strangers to vaccines, which in turns connects them back to their loved ones, their post-quarantine lives, their futures, that is beauty personified.