By David Jernigan, President & CEO of Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta 

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta, like so many other youth service organizations in the country, continues to fill the gap for kids and families in this unprecedented, ever-changing climate.

Our job as leaders in youth development is more important now than ever before.  

Parents are stressed.

Kids are tired.

Teachers are burned out.

I wish I could say that we cracked the code on how to successfully navigate our “new normal.” We have never seen a crisis of this magnitude in our lifetime. However, through considerable planning and thoughtful conversation, our team of trained, trusted Club staff is learning along the way. We are proud of the strides we have made and continue to ensure that our kids and teens receive high-quality programming and critical support while they are in our care.

Heading into a new year, we are energized and hopeful about how we can grow our impact on the change-makers of tomorrow.

We are also wiser than we were a year ago – about ourselves, the world and the future. Here are 4 lessons we have learned from the pandemic:

Lesson 1 –Hybrid is the Future

We don’t know how long we will be in this virtual space. What we do know is that hybrid services are here to stay. The pandemic forced us to innovate the way we deliver programming and host events. We have also learned new ways to stay connected with our Club members when our facilities are closed, like using social media and, of course, Zoom.

When our Clubs closed last spring, we quickly launched a weekly video series to guide parents on best youth development practices as they worked to keep their kids engaged and healthy while learning from home. We saw great engagement with a virtual scavenger hunt app called GooseChase that encouraged kids to get outside and stay active. We even hosted a virtual soccer camp – who knew that was possible? 

For teens in our CareerBound program, we held virtual college tours and career readiness workshops to help them with coursework, job applications, college applications, and applying for scholarships. Instagram made it possible to share resources, inspirational messages and live speakers with our Club members. For our seniors who were missing their final months in school, we hosted a virtual graduation event that included videos, speeches and awards. We also visited their homes “social distance style” with fun giveaways and yard signs celebrating their success. Because of our staff’s ingenuity, we can proudly say that 98% of our CareerBound seniors graduated on time in 2020 with a plan for the future.

Virtual events are sticking around, too. Our 2020 Youth of the Year Livestream Event, which included satellite “watch parties” at viewers’ homes, saw record-breaking success. We expect most of our events will include a livestream component moving forward.

This journey in the virtual space forced us to tap into our own talents and creativity to engage our youth to stay on track for school and graduation, and to stay connected with our supporters. 

Lesson 2 – Collaboration is Key

In our immediate response to the pandemic, we strategically partnered with corporate and community partners to meet the urgent needs of our Club kids and families. 

With the support of 26 local restaurants and catering partners, last summer we were able to supply more than 120,000 meals over the summer. 

The digital divide was also a major hardship for many families who depend on our Clubs for homework assistance and college and job application help. Companies like Aaron’s stepped up for us in a big way.  We mobilized and delivered more than 170 devices to support our kids’ academic progress and goals to graduate on time. 

This fall, with schools shuttered in many counties, we partnered with several local school districts to adjust our traditional after-school model to accommodate families’ need for distance learning during the school day. We opened our Clubs to provide the necessary technology, staff and other resources children need to thrive during virtual instruction.

Lesson 3 – Agility with Humility 

During this past year, we have learned to hold all plans loosely. When our senior leadership team thought we had solidified our plan to keep our physical doors closed for our employees’ safety this past fall, our front-line Club staff and many of our Board members pushed back and challenged us to rethink our strategy. In partnership with our volunteer leaders and employees, we developed a reopening plan that felt safe and allowed us to be there for the kids and families who needed us the most.  While we had not budgeted to keep our doors open during the entire school day to support virtual instruction, we took a leap of faith and responded to the need of our families, and we were blown away by the generosity of our community that allowed us to continue operating this model into the new year.  

This example is just one of many times throughout this pandemic when we’ve started with one plan but were flexible enough to change course because we had our ear to the ground and remained flexible.  We continue to do this as we consider how we can grow our capacity over time and maintain our number one priority of keeping kids safe.

Lesson 4 – Stay Connected

Relationships have always been at the heart of what Boys & Girls Clubs do. When we had to close our Clubs this past year, our Club staff knew they had to find a way to maintain their relationships with our Club kids and teens. During the first four months of the pandemic, our staff made 7,500 “wellness checks” – phone calls, texts or driveway visits – to stay in touch with our Club members and their families. Gail Johnson, executive director of our Warren Club for over 40 years, sent hand-written cards to all 267 of her members. When Deidre Tolbert, executive director of the Joseph B. Whitehead Club, heard about a family that was facing housing insecurity, she found a sponsor to secure housing for them. For our employees who are navigating their own personal challenges while showing up for our kids and teens each day, we have created avenues for them to remain connected to one another and to access resources for their own wellbeing. Our organization strives to create a family-like culture and in the midst of this crisis, we saw staff go above and beyond to take care of our kids and take care of each other.

Perhaps most importantly, our kids and teens have taught us one of the greatest lessons of all – keep going no matter what. They have weathered many challenges in this pandemic. But through it all, our youth remain resilient in their fight to achieve the Great Futures they deserve.  We will continue doing all that we can to make this possible – as safely as possible – one day at a time. 

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