In a time when COVID-19 has transformed homes into classrooms for tens of thousands of students, community organizations that offer after-school programs to youth living in underserved neighbourhoods are also facing challenges brought on by a pandemic that has further exacerbated inequalities.
“We know that COVID-19 has had a very pervasive impact on the lives of racialized community members,” said Steven Chuang, Director of Children, Youth and Families, with the Regent Park Community Outreach Center. “We know that young people need our support now, more than ever.”
As schools closed and classes moved online, a digital divide was created. Community-based organizations, who were also forced to go virtual, stepped in to provide youth with the access to the technology they need to participate in virtual learning.
Since March 2020, Regent Park Community Health Centre distributed over 90 laptops and 20 tablets to youth who didn’t have access to the technology.
The organization, which provides programs and services to youth from low-income communities, currently serves 640 high school students from grades 9 to 12 in over 60 schools in the Toronto area.
Engagement during the pandemic, has been challenging at times.
“We try to level the playing field for the young people living in those neighbourhoods, making sure they have access to all of those supports throughout high school”
“It’s never the same when it’s done in person,” Chuang said. “We see our participation rates have gone down as much as half of the participation that we would normally have with in-person program delivery.”
Last summer, the group conducted a needs assessment with 130 community members, asking families about their experiences during the pandemic. Over half of the respondents said that one of their top concerns with after-school programming moving online is the lack of available quiet and private space.
The data also shows that half of respondents continue to use transit to access essential services, and nearly half of households are concerned about employment.
“If we can’t address the basic fundamentals such as education, then how can they respond to other life needs,” Chuang said. “We have pivoted our financial supports to respond to those needs, by addressing food security, food supplies and technology gaps.”
Mental health concerns was also central in the needs assessment, with 43 per cent of parents saying the pandemic has affected their children’s health. That’s due to the isolation created by the pandemic.
The organization has a team of 15 youth outreach workers that take a multi-faceted approach to remain in touch with youth, also interacting with parents and teachers, so they are aware of what’s happening in the community.
Pathways to Education offers a wide variety of programs, supports and resources to help students successfully finish high school and post-secondary education, as well as pursue their desired career choices. The programs are often times offered to students who live in communities that face significant disadvantages, and therefore don’t always have access to the same opportunities as their classmates.
“We try to level the playing field for the young people living in those neighbourhoods, making sure they have access to all of those supports throughout high school,” said Sue Gillespie, President, of Pathways to Education Canada. “We want to ensure they have the resources to graduate, but they’re also building that network for future success.”
In Toronto’s west-end, Generation Chosen, takes a holistic approach in supporting the development of youth and adults in underserved communities, through a variety of supports that address mental health needs, violence, educational materials, and mentorship opportunities.
Although the non-profit organization was created in the Jane and Finch community, it has been attracting interest from across the GTA.
“It’s been challenging but it’s been rewarding at the same time,” said Dwayne Brown, co-founder of Generation Chosen. “We’ve been able to tap in and meet the needs of youth from all over the GTA. We’ve had people from Waterloo, Brampton, and Durham. We’re excited that we’re able to reach more youth that need some of our services.”
If it wasn’t for COVID, Amanda Wanjiru, would be commuting from Brampton to attend programming offered by the organization. With school moving online though, the screen-time has become a challenge for the teen.
“Coming from my school and then I have to go into Gen Chosen was tiring in a way, because all day my eyes are tired of looking at the screen,” Wanjiru said. “But I wasn’t doing school work, but something that was giving me more information about different aspects of topics we’re talking about.”
The 16 year-old is currently participating in an emotional intelligence program, a staple for the organization, which creates activities and discussions on a number of areas, including the roots of fears and anxieties and how to overcome them.
Through guest speakers and discussions, Wanjiru has gotten the opportunity to learn more about pursing a career in business, something she’s interested in. But it’s also about the connections and friendships that the 11th grader has built since joining the group late last year.
She logs onto the Zoom sessions online, where she is able to connect and make friends with over two dozen others enrolled in the same programs, at least twice a week.
“It’s a lot of pressure and it’s a lot of work, so you need to do something to get away from school, something that you like doing,” Wanjiru said. “I’ve spoken to some of the people and they all seem cool, I’d really like to meet them in person.”
Generation Chosen also provides access to therapy, working alongside a number of BIPOC experts that help to destigmatize the conversation around mental health. There are also programs available to teach youth about female empowerment, and how to delve into the world of entrepreneurship.
Brown also heads a program that works to address gun and gang violence in Jane and Finch, which helps to support first time and repeat offenders. Project Alchemy encourages participants to use their experiences to become leaders in their community.
“Despite the lockdowns they’re not entirely socially isolated. We provide meaningful ways to engage with them, from academic workshops, online after-school tutoring, a number of mentorship workshops and ongoing check-ins.”
Moving these life-saving tools and programs virtually, hasn’t been easy.
“You really have to over-compensate to reproduce those things,” he said. “We know that a lot of the youth from the community that we serve, they like hands on stuff and like to be engaged holistically. We’ve had to become really creative.”
To increase this engagement, Generation Chosen began sending home kits to their participants, full of hands-on activities that can be used during the sessions, which mostly moved to Zoom. But at times, there were concerns about how the pandemic would impact the participation rate.
Prior to the pandemic, there were 200 youth enrolled in the program, now there are about 150. As youth and families will require more supports during and after the pandemic, it’s expected that this number will significantly rise.
Brown, who is also an educator, says it’s important to be understanding, at a time when some may be faced with a variety of personal challenges.
“It’s always something that we anticipate, but it doesn’t occur frequently when you’re in person,” Brown said. “With all of the change, people just don’t know what they can commit too. Some people might have lost jobs, or their families have lost their jobs, maybe people have had to pick up other responsibilities.”
There are some parallels in the challenges both Generation Chosen and Pathways are having to face during the pandemic.
Generation Chosen also has outreach workers out in the communities, and similarly, are providing laptops and internet connection to families who do not have access to the technology needed to move online.
“We have to increase their access, because those are the individuals we have to help out that would really benefit from our programing,” Brown said. “They’ve done an incredible job at demonstrating tenacity, adaptability and resourcefulness. They’ve done this daily, this is their daily lives.”
Mental health is also a central concern for both organizations. Chuang adds that the Pathways program has become a real ‘conduit’ that connects students together, during what can often times be an isolating time.
“Despite the lockdowns they’re not entirely socially isolated,” he said. “We provide meaningful ways to engage with them, from academic workshops, online after-school tutoring, a number of mentorship workshops and ongoing check-ins.”
THE NATIONAL TREND
Pathways to Education currently has 6,000 students participating in 25 program locations across Canada. In addition to the lack of access to technology, transportation and food insecurity also became a concern.
“We are able to make sure that the students basic needs are being met,” said Gillespie. “Initially in the pandemic, when you’re not going to school to participate in the breakfast and lunch programs, food security was definitely a challenge.”
Program partners stepped up to fill that gap. But Pathways also assessed needs on a community basis, since youth were not always able to attend programming in person. In addition to using video platforms such as Zoom and Whatsapp, Pathways also developed it’s own low bandwidth video platform to ensure all students can continue to participate in the programs virtually.
“It is absolutely critical to keep young people engaged in their education, but also connected to each other,” Gillespie said. “We all remember when we were in high school, how important it was to see our friends every day. So if we can facilitate that, it’s very very important.”
Gillespie says that the demand for the Pathways program is only going to increase because of the pandemic, noting that there are over 300,000 students who are living in poverty across Canada that can benefit from a program like this.
“The pandemic has put those students furthest away from opportunity,” she said. “As demands for the program increase, we have to look at our funders. We have to continue to raise the resources and increase our funding, so that we can meet our demands.”
Gillespie adds that governments and individual donors have been supportive of the program. In addition there are over 1,400 volunteers who provide out-reach supports to student members, including a network of alumni who are currently working on the front lines of this pandemic.
“We know that success starts with a high school diploma,” she said. “Our students are resilient, if we give them access to the opportunities and tools that they need. We know that we can really make a difference.”