Voices of Youth: Ferndale Parks & Rec teens open up about pandemic life and the coming school year

Ruby Whitehorn misses the feeling of playing basketball with her teammates in a crowded auditorium. 

The Detroit Edison Public School Academy student has been shooting hoops since she was three years old, and her many years of training have really paid off. Her high school team has won three state championships since she joined them in 2017. And, at 16, she's already looking forward to playing at the college level after graduation, having been offered full-ride scholarships to multiple Division 1 schools. Ruby Whitehorn

The young athlete's routine just hasn't been the same, though, since Gov. Gretchen Whitmer began issuing a series of statewide emergency orders in March to curb the spread of COVID-19. As a result of these actions, schools across the state
were shut down and youth sports were postponed or canceled.

Whitehorn recalls being upset about the announcement that school sports programs were canceled and what that meant for her team's chances in the finals. "My team was supposed to win its fourth state championship this year,” she says. "But we didn’t get to play."

Sports and community engagement are a big deal in Whitehorn’s household. Since early childhood, she and her 15-year-old brother, Angelo Reese, who plays travel baseball and is on the team at Summit Academy North High School, have been avid volunteers in parks and recreation programs around Metro Detroit. Most recently they've been active with Ferndale Parks and Recreation, where their mother Lisa Bryant works as an deputy director.

Although most of the programs at Ferndale Parks and Recreation were canceled due to the pandemic, Whitehorn and Reese were still able to continue volunteering with them. Instead of their usual work with youth sports, though, the teens suddenly found themselves handing out food to local residents in partnership with the YMCA, as things changed to accommodate the coronavirus outbreak.

At home, Whitehorn and Reese adjusted to online learning and maintained their sports edge by playing basketball in the Angelo Reesedriveway and practicing with a baseball tee. Still, Reese was relieved to get back to practice when the statewide orders were lifted in June, though he's still cautious about the virus and continues to wear a mask. "Now, I can go outside a little bit more and I can play baseball and I don’t have to stay in the house all day, so it’s gotten better. But I wish it’d go back to normal like
how it was last year," he says.

Right now, with the coronavirus pandemic less prevalent in Michigan than in the spring, Reese and Whitehorn are thinking about what will come next as they prepare to enter their junior year of high school. 

Summit Academy North High School, the charter academy Reese attends, will be returning to school remotely from September 8-28, then switching to a hybrid model learning in October. Of the two, he prefers the latter option which mixes virtual and in-person learning.

Although Whitehorn feels in-person learning is best, Detroit Edison Public School Academy will also be implementing a hybrid model, something she's comfortable with, even if it's not ideal. "As long as I can go to school and interact with my teachers for a day or two [each week], that’s fine," she says. "I would rather learn in person full-time, but I’ll take what I can get."

Keeping Youth Active

School isn’t the only thing on the minds of the kids and parents involved with Ferndale Parks and Rec these days, though. Another key concern is keeping youth active during the ongoing pandemic. 

"Most of the people in the profession of recreation do it, because it’s what we’re passionate about," says Bryant. "It’s our life — sports and movement and the great outdoors is who we are."

Ferndale Parks and Recreation oversees 14 community parks and a community center and employs between 25-30 youth and serves over 2,000 children from various communities each year. Its programming includes an annual summer camp, swimming, and youth athletics like baseball, softball, basketball, and soccer, alongside adult leagues and programs for senior citizens — activities that all came to an abrupt halt in March.

To help mitigate the risks of physical inactivity, the agency's administrators had to work quickly to find creative ways to pivot their programming to a safe virtual format. "We’re just kind of reinventing ourselves and trying to make the best of this current situation," Bryant says.

As part of that effort, Ferndale Parks and Recreation recently partnered with the YMCA and Project Play to share equipment and hand out sports kits to local youth each week. The partnership, which allows equipment to be shared between parks and recreation programs, will make kits available to youth in Ferndale, Detroit, Hazel Park, Madison Heights, and other cities around Metro Detroit.

Preparing for College

Kelsey Heron, a 17-year-old rising senior at Ferndale High School, spent her first summer working with Ferndale Parks and Rec helping to assemble some of those kits. Despite missing out on youth sports, Heron says there have been upsides to the limited work she’s been able to help with. "I love seeing people come to us each week to get a kit for their kids,” she says. Kelsey Heron"They’re so involved, and they’re so happy that we’re at least trying to do something for their children."

Outside of her parks and rec work, Heron also felt the impact of the pandemic at school. Although she served on student council and participated in National Honor Society, those activities were cut short with the school closings. Heron also missed
out on playing softball.

To make sure she stayed on track with her honors courses and an AP exam, Heron followed a daily schedule that incorporated online lessons and studies. While Heron found it more difficult to do math without a teacher in the room, she enjoyed being able to finish her schoolwork early in the day. 

The teen took advantage of her extra time to chat with friends on social media and hang out with her mother, father, and little brother Jack. The extra family time helped offset the isolation she felt during the early months of the pandemic. "We ate dinner together. We played board games. We were outside a lot just hanging out together," says Heron. We never really got to do that on a normal basis, so that was really fun."

As restrictions have begun to lift over the last couple months, Heron likes that she's been able to see people at restaurants and spend more time outdoors. But she's also been concerned about her family and future. 

In early August, Heron’s grandmother was admitted to the hospital with breathing trouble. Although her grandmother tested negative for the COVID-19 virus, restrictions for visitors are still tight due to the pandemic. "It makes me really sad because, at the hospital, only one person a day can visit her," Heron says.

This fall, Heron — like other Ferndale Public Schools youth — will attend classes virtually, though there will be some opportunities for students to attend in-person sessions for Learning Support Labs and pop-up instructional events.

As she prepares to begin her senior year, though, college is weighing on Heron's mind. Unfortunately, she hasn't been able to participate in any college tours this year and has found it challenging to prepare for the application process. 

"I still haven’t taken the SAT or ACT, so I still have to look into which colleges are requiring it,” she says. “It’s a very weird situation, but I definitely want to start applying soon. I just don’t know what to do."

Working Together

Dakari Thomas is another teen who's spent many years volunteering with Metro Detroit recreation programs. He's been with the Ferndale program about four years now and is confident the experience will help him as he pursues a career in sports medicine.

As with many others, the arrival of the pandemic here in March was a jolt. The 16-year-old Royal Oak High School student Dakari Thomashad to shelter at home with his mother and step-father, which meant going to school online and missing out playing basketball
 with his school team.

To make matters worse, Thomas learned he was considered high-risk for the virus because of upper respiratory issues. "I didn’t realize I was at higher risk until [my doctor] and my mom told me," he says. “I wasn’t expecting it — I didn’t really take it super seriously. It was kind of scary.”

To stay safe, Thomas has been taking smart precautions like wearing a mask, staying at least six feet away from others, and washing his hands regularly.

Although his sports-related volunteering with Ferndale Parks and Recreation remains on hold, he has been helping out once a week with a food donation program sponsored by Detroit Parks and Recreation. And he's been careful to adhere to strict safety guidelines. 

Due to the pandemic, some of the roughly 750,000 children in Michigan that were eligible for free to reduced-priced lunches have been missing out on the meals they would normally eat at school. Because of that, Thomas is thankful he's able to play a part in helping some of these young people get much-needed access to meals.

In June, as the pandemic began to lessen its reach in Michigan, Thomas resumed practicing basketball and began to feel more comfortable spending time with  his extended family and best friend. 

Still, he has concerns about the coming school year. Several classmates and his basketball coach's parents all came down with COVID-19, so he wonders what impact in-person schooling might have for him. As things stand right now, Royal Oak Schools are dedicated to continuing remote learning until early November, when they will reassess whether to go forward with in-person classes.

As for the bigger question of how Southeast Michigan will handle the pandemic in the coming months, he's doing his best to stay positive.

"I hope everyone can stay safe, and we can get through this horrible time together," he says.

Correction: An earlier version of this article noted that Dakari Thomas was working with a Ferndale Parks and Recreation food distribution program. He was actually working with Detroit Parks and Rec for that program. The article has been corrected to reflect that.

Voices of Youth is a Second Wave Media series that captures youth perspectives during the COVID-19 response and recovery. It is made possible with funding from the Community Foundation for Southeastern Michigan.
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