Caroline Zhu of Syosset and Gerard Donnelly of Lynbrook, both 16, are two teenagers who were driven to help local businesses recover from the financial hardships of the COVID-19 shutdown in March. Separately, they set up GoFundMe pages, raising a combined total of nearly $5,000. Credit: Kendal Rodriguez, Debbie Egan-Chin

They say great minds think alike: Caroline Zhu, a junior at Syosset High School, and Gerard Donnelly, a junior at Chaminade High School in Mineola, have never met but when the COVID-19 pandemic put a squeeze on local business owners, the 16-year-old students had the same idea — create a GoFundMe page and raise money to help them.

Zhu created a GoFundMe titled "COVID-19 Relief for Small Businesses NYC/LI" in late March, raising about $3,600 thanks to the contributions of 25 donors. And about three weeks ago, Donnelly, of Lynbrook, created the "Help Long Island Small Businesses" GoFundMe, raising nearly $1,100 with the help of 28 donors.

On Zhu's GoFundMe, a lengthy post reads: "For these business owners, who have put their heart, life, and soul into building up their business, COVID-19 is on the brink of destroying what they have built in years, overnight. This is why we need YOUR help … ANY donated amount will make a huge impact on a local business."

Zhu turned to the crowdfunding site after a conversation with one of her neighbors — a struggling business owner himself — inspired her "to do something about it."

"He runs a small business and was telling me how much his business was suffering and that's when I started thinking that I could and should do something to help," she said.

Her plan of action? Enlisting the fundraising help of other students, by founding a new group she called "Students Combat Corona." Together, teens in the 150-member group discussed fundraising strategies and nominated businesses in need.

Two businesses were then chosen to receive the aid, after obtaining a winning number of entries in an in-group survey conducted by the students, Zhu said.

In September, Zhu presented a $1,000 check to the owners of Chinese restaurant Kam's Garden in Syosset. In November, the group presented another $1,000 check to the owners of a Wayback Burgers franchise in East Northport. The students are in the process of selecting a third business, and Zhu said she hopes to continue raising money to donate another $1,000 to a fourth business.

The donated money was a godsend, said Jane Wu, a recent Taiwanese immigrant who, along with her husband Eric Chen, in 2019 opened the fast-casual burger spot in a "heavily trafficked" strip mall.

"I'm a Christian and I believe and I was praying for something like this," she said.

"It's hard to believe and incredible that students, who are so young … you know, my daughter is about [Caroline's] age, could do something like this. It's so great."

Before the shutdown, her shop was booming, Wu said, crediting the now-shuttered Elwood Cinemas, closed for good in October, and a string of neighboring stores — including a clothing boutique for teens — for driving business.

Wayback, she said, was usually full of "kids celebrating birthday parties, coming to the square to shop or people going to the movies and later coming in to order a meal."

The pandemic changed all of that, she said. "The cinema closed, the barbershop closed, the nail salon closed … everything around us closed and the whole square was empty. All of a sudden, no customers. Only one or two deliveries a day."

The $1,000 donated by Zhu's group has helped her pay employees and pay rent, she said, adding "it's a big help and we are so happy and thankful."

Donnelly's GoFundMe initiative was, like Zhu's, motivated by a desire to help struggling Long Island businesses.

He plans to donate to Angelina’s Pizzeria & Restaurant in Lynbrook, a pizza parlor he frequents, and the Garden City Skin Care Center, a business he felt compelled to help after a chat with owner Kelly Martinez about its struggles. It's "the least I can do to give back to the community during such a hard time," Donnelly said.

His efforts haven't gone unnoticed. On Tuesday, Nassau County Executive Laura Curran presented Donnelly with a citation recognizing him for his "leadership" spearheading fundraisers for small businesses during the pandemic. Curran gave him the accolade at the Garden City Skin Care Center.

"Any little bit helps," Curran said, thanking the teen "on behalf of all the businesses in Nassau County." Martinez, the shop owner, added, "the heart that he has put into it is remarkable."

Gerard, in turn, said he was humbled by the moment. "Something I learned from this, I hope others learn, is giving back," he said. "It makes me feel good to raise money. What’s more important is that I’m raising awareness."

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