It seems a million miles from a typical summer, but like any teen in her first summer job, 17-year-old Theresa Duncan said she was excited about meeting new people and learning how to manage her own money. But her work bagging food donations for the YMCA of Greater Boston has also given her something much greater, she said.

“Doing this, honestly, just opens my eyes, because I’m fortunate to be able to have a roof over my head — and some people are not able to,” said Duncan, who lives in Boston. “And to be able to provide for others who can’t do so themselves, it brightens my day to know that someone else other than myself is going to have something to eat at night.”

Duncan is one of about 100 teens who are working this summer for the Greater Boston YMCA’s food distribution network in jobs that are paid through Boston’s Department of Youth Engagement and Employment. Teens have traditionally found employment within the Y system at camps and helping out at branches, but many of those jobs are not available this summer because of COVID-19.

Given the shortage of teen jobs, and the heavy demand the Y’s food distribution is seeing — more than 90,000 bags given out in the past five months — it became clear to James Morton, president of the Greater Boston YMCA, that teens should take on the food work.

“We decided that we didn't want to just give them a job. We wanted to give them an opportunity to serve the community in a meaningful way,” Morton said. “And so our food distribution system this summer is run almost primarily by our young teen employees. They are helping us to make sure that our community gets fed this summer.”

And that community includes many children. Data taken from the latest U.S. Census in July, compiled by Project Bread, show that more than 20% of Massachusetts households with children don’t have enough to eat.

Tatyana Vasquez, 18, is supervising the Y’s central food packing operation, based at the Huntington Avenue YMCA in Boston. Vasquez, who is employed by Boston’s Department of Youth Education and Engagement, tracks all the paperwork for the Greater Boston Y’s food operation to make sure the costs are reimbursed by the state. As she shuttled from her desk to a busy area where teens were moving crates of food and packing bags to send to distribution sites, Vasquez seemed a calm and seasoned supervisor, but got excited when she described her work.

"I go home and I tell my mom, 'Oh my goodness Mom, I did [this] paperwork today and we served 2,000 meals just at one site,” said Vasquez, a Boston resident. “And so the fact that I can see the paperwork for 70 sites, just looking at that one site just makes me feel so good about like what we're actually doing.”

The food that the Y distributes comes largely from the Greater Boston Food Bank, which says they are seeing unprecedented demand.

“Since the pandemic began in early March, we've seen an increase to close to 70 percent of food distribution year over year. That's an equivalent of over 40 million meals in the last five months,” said Catherine Drennan, communications director of the Greater Boston Food Bank. “In June alone, we saw a 116 percent increase in clients served over last year.”

While teens in households with enough to eat might not be aware of the scope of problems surrounding food insecurity, these teens say their work has opened their eyes and boosted their self-esteem.

On a recent day, 16-year-old Julian Cabrera of Boston was packing bags for pick-up at a “grab and go” station just outside the Huntington Avenue Y.

“I realize there's a lot of people that this actually helps a lot. So I'm just helping people in need. It makes me feel good about myself because I know that I'm affecting other people in a positive way,” Cabrera said.

Greater Boston Y President Morton said he’s hearing from teens that their summer work is also teaching them what he calls “power skills.”

“When I was a teen employee, I learned things like the importance of being at work on time, how to dress appropriately for work, how to handle constructive criticism. Very basic things,” Morton said. “But what our young people are learning today [is] how to supervise others, how to organize their time, how to be supportive, how to control their emotions so they can help others control theirs. ... Those would be skills that we would consider to be the power skills, not soft skills.”

18-year-old supervisor Vasquez said she thinks teens are often underestimated.

“As a teen, we're told, ‘Oh, y'all are a mess.’ There’s a lot of things that teens are told,” Vasquez said. “And so I know a lot of my teens are happy doing this because they feel as if they're doing something that's bigger than them, which they are.”