Genevieve Liu is a 16-year-old high school sophomore from Chicago, Illinois, where she lives with her mom and younger brother and sister. Last year, she founded an organization and website called Surviving Life After a Parent Dies (aka SLAP’D) to give teenagers who are grieving the loss of a parent, or both parents, a place to talk to each other about what they’re going through, and to provide them resources and professional support. SLAP’D came about when Genevieve was 13 and first processing her own grief over the death of her dad, Dr. Donald Liu, who drowned saving two boys from a strong current in Lake Michigan.
We call this series “Why Can’t I Be You,” and though I can’t imagine what it’s like to “be” someone who has lost a parent, I admire Genevieve immensely for creating something that is helping grieving teens, including herself. Here’s what she has to say about it.
LENA: Hi, is this Genevieve? This is Lena calling from Rookie.
Oh, awesome! I’m excited to get your call.
Genevieve, before we get started—how do you pronounce your name?
John-vee-ev. It’s the French way of pronouncing Genevieve.
Thank you! OK, let’s talk about when you started working on SLAP’D.
A little over six months after my dad died, I knew that I wanted to do something for teens [who were also grieving for their parents]. Even though I had an incredible community here in Chicago, I still felt very alone, and like no one really understood. I had friends who were my everything, but I felt like I couldn’t relate to them very well anymore. I felt like I couldn’t reach out to my siblings in many ways because they were still trying to figure things out. Talking to the guidance counselor was awkward. It was awful. The people who were most helpful to talk to were teens who were in a similar situation. So that’s the concept—the hope for connection, and to foster a sense of community. I guess it started as, Let’s make a blog. But then it really evolved into something a lot more interactive—more of a community and an online resource for teens who have lost a parent, which is what SLAP’D is now. I started working on it a year and a half ago, but the website only really came to fruition about a year ago.
How did you find other teens to talk to about what you were going through?
There was this girl in my grade named Isabel. In fifth grade, the teacher announced during class that [Isabel] had lost her mom—she had died from cancer. I remember that Isabel left the room, and I cried. The entire class was crying, actually. It wasn’t that I could understand her situation, by any means, but I could sense the gravity of the situation, and I knew that her life was really never going to be the same. So fast forward, like, three years. Isabel and my paths never really crossed. She was honestly way cooler than I was—I was sort of more on the quiet side. My mom, after my dad died, got Isabel and me in the same room. And I don’t know—I was talking to her about random things, like what happens when my mom wants to move forward and date other people? What is it like going to family events? How do you get past X, Y, Z. We weren’t talking about profound things, but I really, for the first time, felt like I had the—she sort of helped me make a connection that I needed to move forward. And at that moment, that’s where the idea for SLAP’D was really born. The two of us started writing articles about parent loss. We started talking about and planning a website, and what we wanted to do. [Isabel and I] were really a team. We don’t work together anymore because she doesn’t go to my school, but that was really how it began—with us talking. We didn’t know what was going to happen, but we knew that other teens in our situation deserved something similar to the amount of empowerment we felt by talking about our experiences.
Before you and Isabel talked, how had you been dealing with your grief?
Before my dad died, my strength was in writing. After my dad died, I wrote about my experiences. For a long time, I wrote to him—like letters—and after a while, I couldn’t really bring myself to do that all the time, especially because I was a student. It took so much emotion, and it was very mentally draining.
Once you and Isabel had the idea to give teenagers who had lost parents a place to connect with each other, what were the steps?
I was a technologically challenged 13-year-old. It shocked a lot of people that I said, “I want to start a website, potentially for millions of teens.” That really caught people off guard and was a very unexpected thing, even for myself. But I’ve always liked to draw and write, and I started drawing out wireframes for a website, and talking to other teens who had lost a parent.
The thing is, websites that are at SLAP’D’s level of, I don’t know [Laughs] fanciness? They’re incredibly expensive. [We estimated that] SLAP’D would have been in the range of 35 to 50 grand to build, right off the bat. My family could never dream of paying that. That meant that we needed a lot of pro bono work. I pitched six or seven different web development companies and found one that has been so supportive, called Elite Research. They really built the website. I love them because they saw the potential in the idea when I was a 13-year-old who was like, I have this idea. They decided to code it, and they did it pro bono at the time. We’re still working with them. [Collaborating with them] was definitely where I got interested in entrepreneurship.
That is so cool. How did you find the other people who helped you get the site off the ground?
We’ve tried to harness the strength of my entire community, but there are three main areas where we’ve gotten support. Currently we work through the [University of Chicago’s] Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, where they focus on social innovation. I have a mentor there, and everyone [at the center] has really helped me through the process of figuring out what SLAP’D is going to become, who should be involved, and the long-term vision. I also created a board of directors very early in the process, and they’ve provided me with guidance and given me the confidence I needed to self-promote and talk to people. I would say the greatest support I have, though, without a question, is my mom. She’s not just my hero, but also totally my best friend. She is a surgeon by training, but she works in her own non-profit-y social organization for early childhood language development. And she also—totally unrelated to what I’m doing and what she’s doing—really believed in me and supported me emotionally and financially through it. That was really an amazing thing.