#11: Responding To A Crisis — Darrin McCall, Director of Programs at the Youth Empowerment Project — A Series Documenting How New Orleans Educators and Schools Are Reacting To COVID-19

This is the 11th in a series of interviews and Q&As conducted by the Cowen Institute with New Orleans educators to highlight how schools and programs are managing with the current COVID-19 outbreak.

In this edited Q&A, we continue our updates on how youth-focused programs in New Orleans are responding to the COVID crisis. This is an interview with Darrin McCall, Director Programs at the Youth Empowerment Project (YEP). YEP operates ten programs across six sites that help to address the needs of vulnerable youth, through education, enrichment, and employment-readiness offerings.

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Cowen: How are you communicating with students, YEP participants, and families since quarantining began?

McCall: Staff for each of YEP’s four service areas (YEP Educates, YEP Enriches, YEP Mentors, YEP Works) are communicating with participants by phone and through video calling (like Zoom, FaceTime and Google hangouts). Initially, most of the communication was to stay connected with families and help direct them to many of the community resources that were popping up in the first few weeks of the stay at home order, but our team very quickly adapted our service delivery to begin to engage youth in a variety of virtual programming. We have also delivered care packages to participants’ homes, where we’ve left the items at the door and waved hello.

How often are you reaching out to those involved in your programs?

In most cases, our staff is reaching out to our young people on a daily or weekly basis. Our adult education programming (YEP Educates) and job readiness training (YEP Works) run daily Zoom classes to continue to provide these educational and training services to youth engaged in those respective programs. YEP’s afterschool program (YEP Enriches) hosts daily enrichment activity via Zoom, complete with trivia, workouts, and drum-line practice. Our case management and mentoring (YEP Mentors) staff have continued to do check-ins on participants daily or weekly to assess needs and navigate families to the services they need.

How have your programs been impacted by the pandemic?

As mentioned, our programs have all transitioned to virtual program offerings, and for some that transition has been more straight-forward than others. We’re lucky that our staff have been extremely creative and remained committed to staying connected with the young people they serve through technology. However, a significant portion of the young people and families we serve don’t have adequate access to either technology (computers, tablets, phones, etc.) or internet services. Therefore, our staff have continued to address those needs with participants from week to week, while continuing to connect with those youth over the phone or dropping things off to people at their homes while avoiding direct contact (HiSET prep materials, enrollment forms, games and activities, etc.). YEP is fortunate to be able to continue operating all of our programs, and we’ve even managed to enroll new young people since social distancing began.

What supports and assistance are you providing participants and families currently?

We have be able to continue to gather information about many of the community services that have been initiated over the last several weeks, and in turn share that information with families and offer support in connecting them to those resources (meal distribution sites, low-cost internet access, utility assistance, access to unemployment benefits, technology made available through their K-12 school, etc.). YEP has offered some basic needs (mostly groceries) to families that continue to have more immediate needs while they work on accessing some of the more broadly available community resources (meal distribution sites, SNAP assistance, food banks, etc.). With the support of a handful of individual donors, YEP has recently started ordering family-style hot meals from Katie’s Restaurant, which gives us the opportunity to support a local restaurant (also greatly affected by the economic impact of the pandemic) and meet some of the needs of our families. Recently, we also purchased laptops for some of our adult education students who were not able to access virtual programming because they did not have a computer in their home. And finally, we have delivered some care packages to participants in a few of our programs, with homework packets, games, art supplies, and exercise challenges, as well as some of the supplies needed to engage in some scheduled virtual cooking classes.

Are students able to complete any work while at home?

Yes, we’ve seen many of our students continue to engage in their academic work within our YEP Educates programming. Most of our YEP Educates students are managing the transition to virtual programming considerably well, and they are going above and beyond to make sure they’re present and engaged during classes. We were able to graduate 10 YEP Works participants and set them up with phone/video interviews with potential employers in mid-March. Many of our younger participants who are still engaged in traditional K-12 schools have been able to remain connected to their schools to continue to do school work. In some cases, YEP has been able to facilitate communication between schools and families that we know are in need of extra support, like having work packets or school owned laptops dropped off.

How are you planning for the possibility that closures continue into the fall?

We have begun to consider how we gradually move back into programming now that the stay at home order has been lifted in New Orleans. However, for the time being, much of our work remains virtual. What has become clear is that we are not going to be returning to our usual program delivery strategies as some of the government restrictions begin to lift, and there is going to need to be a very gradual and cautious return to any in-person services and programming over the next several months. YEP believes that our priority must remain on the safety of our participants and staff, so program teams have begun to consider what some of the new normal will look like at YEP between now and the end of the year. And while it’s hard to predict what the fall will look like exactly, we anticipate continuing to incorporate some virtual programming elements as well as taking precautions like regularly disinfecting program spaces, encouraging personal hygiene practices, and continued social distancing for in person services. Additionally, in case there is the need for another city wide stay a home order in the fall or some other time, we are working to ensure we have plans and capacity in place to make the necessary program adjustment swiftly and efficiently to maintain continuity for our young people and families.

What have been the biggest challenges you’re encountering with continuing to operate at this point?

There have been many challenges along the way in making the necessary program adaptations to be able to offer our programs and services remotely, because the core of much of the work that YEP does is relationship-based and building relationships is naturally more effective when people are together in person. But with those challenges, there are opportunities to develop new strategies, capacities and ways of connecting with fellow staff and youth participants. The leadership team at YEP has also spent a lot of time corresponding with many of our supporters and funding partners to ensure the sustainability of the organization. Many of YEP supporters have been very flexible and supportive of our Covid-19 response efforts; however, the uncertainty about the intermediate and longer-term economic impact on local and national philanthropy has been challenging.

What are you hearing from families that are their biggest needs and challenges right now?

Many of the families that YEP is connected to have expressed the need for basic support like food, utility assistance, housing, etc., as a result of having their income impacted due to losing their jobs or having their hours decreased. YEP Works job training staff have been offering assistance to many of our program alumni to help the navigate applying for unemployment as well as providing employment leads to those individuals that are still able to work. YEP has be able to help resolve some of the issues related to technology access, but that has remained a persistent challenge for the population of youth served by YEP’s programs.

Coronavirus has been a stressful experience for many people in the New Orleans community. People are concerned about the health of their loved ones and the financial security of their families. Is there anything that YEP can do to provide emotional support to students and families?

Many of YEP’s youth advocates and support service staff have played a big role in maintaining connection with young people to help them process the emotional toll that the pandemic has had on their families and communities, and identifying when those young people may be in need of some more clinical support. Even prior to the spread of Covid-19, YEP staff would regularly identify and assess the therapeutic needs of young people before making outside referrals to clinical services, and those efforts have continued during the response to the current crisis. What we also know is that the longer-term traumatic stress and mental health consequences of this global pandemic are going to be significant and long lasting. And the negative impacts for common mental health issues following any community-wide crisis will be felt more deeply by venerable populations, like many of the individuals that YEP serves. To help prepare out team to have the capacity to understand and navigate these dynamics, YEP has organized a series of virtual trainings focusing on self-care for helping professionals, learning about vicarious and secondary trauma, and some techniques for addressing some of the most common impacts that disasters or community-level crises have on our clients’ mental health (anxiety, depression, substance abuse, etc.).

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The mission of the Cowen Institute is to advance public education and youth success in New Orleans and beyond.

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