In early January, Benjamin Kagan learned his grandparents in Florida were finding it impossible to book an appointment for their coronavirus vaccines. The computer-savvy teen hopped online and saw how challenging it was to snag a coveted time slot.
"My grandparents can't refresh a web page and my grandfather doesn't even own a cell phone," Kagan, 15, of Chicago, tells PEOPLE in this week's issue. "The vaccine system is clunky for everybody. If it's hard for me, it's impossible for someone 89 years old to navigate."
Kagan set out to make a difference. In February, he began providing tips to obtain appointments on the Facebook group Chicago Vaccine Hunters. But that wasn't enough for many seniors, who would send him direct messages, saying, " 'Benjamin, can you just book it for me?,' " he recalls.
"I got tons of messages with heartbreaking stories from older people who weren't tech savvy — 'I have cancer and if I get COVID, I'm going to die,' or 'My grandkid is being born in a month and I can't meet them if I don't have my vaccine. Can you help?' " he says. "And I can — with the stroke of a computer key."
Kagan started making appointments, and soon gathered a team of 50 adult volunteers to form Chicago Vaccine Angels, who have since directly scheduled appointments for nearly 3,100 seniors.
Kagan, who set up an email address for those in the Chicago area to reach out, has arranged 640 appointments himself during breaks between classes at Chicago's Francis W. Parker School and at home on his laptop — usually after midnight, when clinics and health departments often release batches of new appointment times.
"By me staying up late and keeping crazy hours and getting little sleep I'm saving lives," he says. "So that's what makes it worth it. It's incredible to help people like this."
Kagan, the youngest of three boys, credits his parents, Ali, 51, and Irv, 56, owners of a wholesale food company, for teaching him the importance of assisting others in need.
For more about Kagan's Chicago Vaccine Angels, pick up this week's issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.
"My parents told us if you see an injustice, fix it," says Kagan. "These values were just baked into my life." Says mom Ali: "Benjamin always has been an engaged person. He has a huge heart and he always has."
Pamela Van Deventer, 69, of the Chicago suburb of Palentine, is grateful for that. Deventer, who has Crohn's disease and rheumatoid arthritis, says she panicked after seeing news of COVID variants spreading: "I spent 80 hours looking for an appointment before I stumbled across Ben's group."
Kagan got her in for a shot the next day. "I had relief like I couldn't begin to tell you," she says. "He's my hero."
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