To see an example of how youth-centered local nonprofits have stepped up to help their constituents during the pandemic, look no further than Deshawn Wafer, a recent University of Michigan grad who initially struggled to adapt to virtual learning.
Deshawn Wafer. Courtesy of Winning Futures.
“I’m more of a hands-on type of person,” said Wafer. “When (the pandemic) hit, it really messed me up. I started doing really badly in my classes.”
But, having previously been involved with the Warren-based nonprofit Winning Futures (WF) as a Harper Woods High School student, Wafer signed on for WF’s newly minted College Success Mentoring program. This helped get him back on track to earn his psychology degree.
“In my mind, I didn’t know what a mentor at this time in my life would do,” he said. “But it turned out to be very beneficial. … (My mentor) assisted me in organizing myself, and on top of supporting me, she worked with me on an array of different things … and she plugged me into her network.”
But this is just one way Winning Futures and other local nonprofit organizations have pivoted to offer new programs to young people and families in this difficult moment.
The College Success Mentoring program is one of the initiative WF has launched in response to COVID-19. It connects college students who've previously been a part of WF's high school Workforce Prep program with mentors who help provide wellness support, internship opportunities, and encouragement to stay in school.
Before the pandemic, WF had offered an in-person, in-school mentoring program to students in seven high schools across metro Detroit. It focused on goal-setting, career exploration, and life skill development, followed by on-site company visits during students’ junior and senior years.
“But when COVID came along, we suddenly had no access,” said WF President and CEO Kris Marshall. “We couldn’t get inside schools, and we couldn’t go on company visits. So this year, we arranged for eleventh and twelfth graders to have a one-on-one virtual mentor relationship with the person they’d previously worked with in school. We knew they needed extra support this year, but they also still needed to keep learning about goal-setting and workforce prep.”
WF Mentors, who volunteer from local business communities, and their mentees first watch a video lesson together, then go through talking points and virtual activities built around the topic.
WF mentor meets virtually with student
“The mentors loved it, the kids loved it, and both asked us to continue the program,” said Marshall. “ … This was really exciting for us. If the pandemic hadn’t happened, we wouldn’t be doing this. So it really gave us an opportunity to be more innovative.”
Mentors and mentees say they hope to work in-person at times during this school year, of course, and Marshall said WF would “do that as long as we can do so safely.”
During this time, WF has also built a resource library for students and parents who might be seeking sources of food, tutoring, or other services, and the nonprofit's still awarded $26,000 in scholarships.
“The most beautiful thing that happened was seeing the mentees and mentors finally meet for the first time in person,” Marshall said.
What did WF learn from the pandemic?
“When something interrupts your program, you still have to go forward, whether you go around it, above it, through it – whatever you need to do,” said Marshall. “ … And the belief before was that we could only be successful with our students in-person. But we realize now that we can be successful with a quality blend of virtual and in-person.”
Because of increased needs WF's seen from students and alumni over the last 18 months, the nonprofit has retooled its Workforce Prep programming into a seven-year model that engages students early in high school and throughout their college years.
As for Wafer, he’s already locked down his first post-college job, and he looks forward to one day being a WF mentor for another young person. “I really want to do that for others,” he said. “Sometimes people just need the opportunity to showcase their talents.”
Deshawn Wafer and Bryan Howard, director of programs at Winning Futures. Howard served as Wafer's classroom facilitator at Harper Woods High School. Courtesy of Winning Futures.
BOYS & GIRLS CLUBS OF SOUTHEASTERN MICHIGAN
Another organization who’s been making quick changes to continue serving youth across the region is Boys & Girls Clubs of Southeastern Michigan (BGCSM).
“When the pandemic first broke, we were forced to shut our doors, obviously,” said Shawn Wilson, the organization’s President and CEO. “Within four days, we had a daily virtual program up that was focused on mental health. It was a big party, essentially, with a live DJ every day and a special guest. … Our kids were already dealing with a lot of stress. They didn’t need us reminding them what was going on. We just gave them a little break every day at that point.”
Historically, BGCSM has been known as a safe space for youth 6-18 and their families, but serving that function in the pandemic’s bewildering early days was no simple matter. Even so, fewer than 60 days into the shutdown, the organization slowly opened its doors to children of essential workers.
“We recognized that a lot of our parents were essential workers, whether they were in the medical field, like a nurse, or worked in a grocery store, or as a cashier,” Wilson said. “The state and the country were depending on them to go to work, and many of them had no affordable childcare options. … We were really one of the first organizations to offer that. Then, as the pandemic became more contained, we pivoted to offer learning pods, … where youth could come and participate in academic clubs, and we had staff helping them with their homework and helping them with their classes.”
While adapting to the pandemic’s limiting circumstances, BGCSM has expanded its reach, merging with the Corktown-based maker space for entrepreneurs, Ponyride, and absorbing a football and cheerleading league with a roster of 3,000 kids. In addition, BGCSM launched a fashion industry club for teens in partnership with Detroit fashion industry professionals that made local headlines.
Detroit fashion show created by BGCSM industry club. Photo courtesy of BGCSM Facebook
“It’s really been this hybrid of responding to the pandemic but staying aggressive, to make sure that we actually grow during the pandemic, too,” Wilson said.
But Wilson is also all too aware of the mental toll the pandemic is having on the kids BGCSM serves.
“The isolation they’re going through, the fear, going through the loss of loved ones, of people they know, the amount of anger that’s out there right now among adults – our youth is absorbing all of that,” Wilson said. “They’re experiencing trauma in real time. And that’s going to be something we have to address.”
According to Wilson, poverty and racism often add exponentially to the trauma BGCSM youths are already experiencing during this time. And because the organization, at the national level, was shifting away from its old latchkey model and toward economic mobility – specifically aiming to make kids “career, startup, and homeowner ready” – the pandemic seemed to validate BGCSM’s new direction.
“Because we were already moving in that direction, we’ve been able to accelerate the efforts and benefit from receiving support for that, because we’re not just trying to prove it. We were already active,” Wilson said.
JUNIOR ACHIEVEMENT OF SOUTHEASTERN MICHIGAN
The national organization Junior Achievement was also shifting focus, but theirs, serendipitously enough, was directed toward developing digital content and moving into “blended” programming.
“When the pandemic hit, we actually, as an organization, accelerated those offerings, in terms of providing them to the market,” said Jason Lee, Junior Achievement of Southeastern Michigan’s president & CEO.
“We saw our work during the pandemic as mainly focused on supporting our educators and our school systems who were looking for programming that would work in a virtual or face-to-face environment. As a result, we were able to serve over 40,000 students.”
JA is built on three pillars: financial literacy, entrepreneurship, and career success, for K-12 students.
One new program, JA Inspire, was a digital career exploration event for 8th to 12th grade students, and this past summer, JASM offered a 6 week entrepreneurship program built around a dock of washers and dryers – called The Spin – where the community could wash clothes for free while students learned about how to build and run a business.
Southfield public middle school student explores JA Economics for Success. Courtesy of JA of Southeastern Michigan.
“We received a tremendous amount of support from our corporate partners, who wanted to showcase different career opportunities that young people might not recognize or realize are out there,” said Lee.
To name one example, JA has partnered with the National African American Insurance Association. “We were able to work with some of our high school partners to have NAAIA volunteers engage with students and talk to them about different career paths in the insurance industry,” Lee said. “And we did that all virtually.”
Plus, like BGCSM, JA worked to help and support local teachers.
“We realized early on that our teachers were going into a situation they were not necessarily prepared for, or trained for, or even excited about, in some cases,” Lee said.
“For them, it was like, ‘We’re distributing 1000 laptops, and what you used to do for thirty-plus years as a teacher, you now have to do entirely online.’ A lot of educators had major challenges with that, so we saw one of our main priorities as being a support and help to teachers in this transitional period.”
Lee noted that despite the pandemic’s challenges, JA has learned a lot and “will be using some of those lessons going forward.
"Virtual volunteering and virtual student engagement will be a component of our work when we return to normal. … We were well-positioned, in terms of having resources from our national organization that could help. We had great support from our board of directors, as well as our corporate supporters, who recognized that even though things had changed, JA was still in a position to make an impact in the community.”
This story is part of the Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Southeast Michigan to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19, vaccinations, a heightened sense of racial justice and equity, issues of climate change and more are impacting the nonprofit sector--and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.act Detroit.