Three employees, 50 children, zero volunteers and 10-hour days. The Boys & Girls Club Wren Family Center’s programs have made many shifts over the past year.
“It’s been hard,” said Joy Roberts, Club Executive Director of the Wren Family Center. “Really hard.”
The Wren Family Center’s Power Hour is an essential part of its afterschool program, and typically consists of one hour of tutoring and homework assistance once the children have had their afternoon snack. Once the pandemic reached the US in March of 2020, children were forced out of their classrooms, away from their afterschool programs, mentors, tutors and friends, and into their homes to end their school year virtually. Knowing that the lockdown would negatively impact the children, the Boys & Girls Club of Central Carolina acted quickly when they were forced to close March 15.
“We completely restructured our programming to virtual,” said Elizabeth Colebrook, Resource Development and Marketing Coordinator for Boys & Girls Club of Central Carolina.
Power Hour continued, and the Wren Family Center also began virtual tutoring from 3:00 p.m. until 4:30 p.m. each day.
“It was our way of staying connected with them,” Roberts said. “We continued Power Hour, and our Smart Girls and Passport to Manhood programs. We tried to do spirit days and just stay connected with the children.”
Traci Newby, the Wren Family Center’s Mentor Coordinator, said he was a little anxious about connecting with the children via Zoom versus in person, but he quickly realized how much the children were excited to connect with something familiar.
“Seeing them light up when they saw us, it calmed my nerves,” he said. “It motivated me to keep staying on for them.”
While continuing the virtual programming through the end of the school year, the Boys & Girls Club worked with local and state officials to get bills passed to allow their clubs to become childcare facilities.
The Wren Family Center was usually open for three to four hours each day after school, and once they gained certification as an emergency childcare facility, they reopened the center at 50% capacity June 8, providing full summer programming from 7:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m., Mondays through Fridays.
Summer programming was a challenge because there were no field trips, and the children had to wash their hands every hour, wear a mask and stay away from each other.
“Keeping them motivated and active while keeping them apart was a challenge,” Newby said.
Volunteers were not available, either, but Roberts said virtual opportunities proved to be a success, including virtual Bingo and Family Feud games, virtual panel discussions with the girls and discussions with the boys.
“We had to think outside the box,” she said. “Our volunteers were able to help us virtually.”
Back to School
The real challenges came in August when the children began a new school year, 100 percent virtual.
“Power Hour turned into an all-day Power Hour,” Roberts said. “All of the kids were on different schedules, so we had to make sure we had everyone’s school schedule. We had to teach them how to log on. Wifi was in and out because everyone was pulling from one source.”
Roberts said they separated everyone by grades, and then separated the boys and girls. She said they eventually found their routine. The children were also able to gain additional assistance from their teachers – and the teachers helped the staff, too.
“We were lost,” Roberts said. “We were able to ask them questions, and they helped us so much.”
Because the children were at the Wren Family Center for 10 hours each day, the center provided breakfast and lunch to every child. To provide the meals, the Boys & Girls Club of Central Carolina went through the process of becoming a food distributor. They purchased food from a distributor or the Food Bank of Central and Eastern NC, prepared the meals, and had a bus drive from Lee County to pick up the meals up each day and drive them to the club sites.
Aside from five to six hours of Zoom each day, staff needed to provide breaks for personal development and exercise. They said it was hard to keep the children motivated.
Newby said over time staff figured out what motivated the children, and determined what did not work as well.
“We provided them with incentives and rewards,” he said, and implemented “Fun Days” on Wednesdays and Fridays. Fun Days included making smoothies, a taco bar, time at the park and Pelican’s Snowballs days. Another big hit with the children was the creation of a boys’ room and girls’ room. The children held a doughnut fundraiser, and voted on what they wanted to purchase for each of their rooms.
The girls’ room has a makeup station and ring light station for video creation, and the boys’ room has a television station with video games, LED lights, posters and weight station.
“The girls’ room is the most important part of the Wren Center,” said fifth grader Kylie. “We also like swimming in the summer, and we formed a dance group.”
Kylie also enjoys sewing, which Roberts has taught the children the basics of and hopes to continue.
Aireas, a second grader, said she enjoyed having a separate space from the boys and the girls decorate the room according to holidays and birthdays.
“We like spending time together and celebrating each other’s birthdays,” she said.
Mental Health Challenges
Colebrook said retraining and providing new training for staff was one of the biggest challenges they faced. Not only were they facing challenges surrounding the worldwide pandemic, but the nation and world were also responding to the death of George Floyd – with school still in session.
“The murder of George Floyd struck home with a lot of our population,” Colebrook said. “This was a serious mental health issue that we were facing, along with a public health crisis. We had to work to prepare our staff to be able to assess for trauma – whether it was abuse or neglect happening at home, the stress and impact of the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd, we went through the process of training all staff on trauma informed care and resilience training.”
Colebrook said Boys & Girls Club of Central Carolina is currently in the process of getting all staff mental health first aid certified, with 50% of staff currently certified.
“We are not mental health providers but we do need to know what those signs are, and send people to the right place if there is a need,” Colebrook said.
Danae Johnson, Youth Development Professional for the Wren Family Center, started her role in February of this year, and said she notices the children continue to struggle emotionally.
“This has stressed them out psychologically and emotionally,” Johnson said. “Starting with the fear of people around them getting sick, and then dealing with virtual school, it’s been crazy.”
“The kids were struggling like we were,” Roberts said. “We would talk, and I asked them how do you feel, how do you feel not seeing your grandparents. And we shared our own concerns with them, too, and that’s how I got the kids to open up. We have helped each other.”
Johnson said even though the children are back in school, they are still stressed.
“A lot of them feel like they’re so behind,” she said. “They feel defeated. It’s hard to encourage them. For the younger kids who had never been to school, they missed out on the hidden curriculum – sitting in chairs, raising their hands, asking permission. So for the younger ones school is helping them now. But it’s harder for the older ones.”
The Silver Lining
For the three staff at the Wren Family Center, their main focus continues to be supporting the children in the program and providing them the resources and attention for academic and personal growth.
“The pandemic showed us why we do what we do,” Newby said. “We had kids who weren’t being encouraged or motivated. We are that second support system for these kids.”
Roberts says she’s proud of her staff, and proud of herself, too.
“This was really, really hard – physically and emotionally,” she said. “We just didn’t know. I was being pulled in every direction. I’m so thankful and grateful for my staff – none of us got sick, and we were able to be here for the kids.”
Now that children are back in school, the Boys & Girls Club will be operating their after-school program until the summer program begins. The staff is vaccinated, but still taking temperatures and asking each child symptoms questions before they enter the building , and they must continue to wear their masks and wash their hands multiple times each afternoon.
Roberts says she dreams of the day she’ll be able to hug the kids again, and she said the kids need the hugs, too. Until then, she and her staff will continue to give them air high-fives.
“Things are getting back to normal now,” Roberts said. “We can be excited together. The children are coming in from school and telling us different things now. It’s getting better for everyone.”
For third grader Zaria, the Boys & Girls Club continues to be a happy place.
“The Boys & Girls Club helped me because I got to see more friends,” she said. “At home it was super boring because I was communicating with the same people. When I came here I was happy.”
Second grader Aireas says she loves tie dying, being creative and thinking of new things to do with each other. But more than anything she said she loves “hanging with the girls.”
“We love sitting in the shade and talking,” she said.
For most of the children with the Boys & Girls Club, the Wren Family Center and its staff has been their silver lining, and a safe space where they can learn, share their feelings and hang out with their friends.
“When I was home all day I felt like I was in a cage,” said fifth grader Jaysa. “But when I came here, even with my mask on, I felt like I was free to just be me.”