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By Allison Dikanovic, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service
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Tamesha Roberson, 17, is used to spending a lot of time at Neu-Life Community Development. She’s gone to the center on North Avenue nearly every day for the past three years, first as a student, and now as a staff member.
Since Neu-Life is suspending its programming amid the COVID-19 pandemic, she’s now figuring out how she can support the young people she’s used to seeing every day while working from home.
“It’s really heart-wrenching, because it’s like a second home there for so many of us,” she said. “When we put out the news that we had to close, a lot of youth were upset about it and were like, well, what am I supposed to do now?”
Roberson said she has been fielding text messages from disappointed students, and she’s particularly sad that an art show she had been planning is now postponed.
When Milwaukee schools close for public health reasons, students lose access to more than just their classrooms. Many organizations where students spend their time outside of school have also closed in order to limit the spread of the new coronavirus.
“There’s not a lot of opportunity for young people to socialize in person in safe spaces right now,” said TeAngelo Cargile Jr., the youth injury and violence prevention coordinator for the City of Milwaukee Health Department.
After-school programs like Neu-Life are often crucial sources of stability and support for youth in the city, said Reggie Moore, director of the City of Milwaukee Office of Violence Prevention.
“Research shows how important it is for young people to be connected to a caring adult, and a lot of time that support comes from family but also adults outside of the home like coaches, mentors and program coordinators,” Moore said.
John Rakowski, program director at Running Rebels Community Organization, said that limited mobility and social interaction because of the pandemic makes things particularly challenging for young people who may be experiencing other difficult circumstances in their lives.
“The whole idea of social distancing doesn’t really look good for people if they don’t have a lot of supports in their home or community,” Rakowski said.
Moore said it’s important to remind young people that, “Social distancing doesn’t mean social disconnection.”
“We want to encourage youth to stay in touch with each other and with trusted adults.”
Creativity on display
Despite being closed to the public, local organizations are getting creative with how they’re continuing to connect with the young people who rely on them and making themselves accessible to youth and their families.
“We’re trying to figure out how to help people manage their time so they’re not just spinning their wheels,” Rakowski said. “Bored and restless plus scared equals not good.”
Rakowski said Running Rebels is looking into online tools, social media, texting and calling as ways to continue mentoring. Staff are contacting youth this week to see what their needs are and how the organization can help.
However, Running Rebels also is dealing with how to take care of staff members who were being paid through contracts with Milwaukee Public Schools that are now suspended.
Neu-Life is checking in with young people individually, too.
“It’s part of my staff’s remote work now,” said Jody Rhodes, executive director at Neu-Life. “Checking in with youth multiple times a week to see if they need anything, if parents need referrals to services, if they need food. We can make arrangements to help them get their basic needs.”
Neu-Life provided all of its youth with subscriptions to an online learning program called IXL. Staff are holding contests and challenges to motivate students to use the tool.
MA’RUF Youth Innovation Center also is experimenting with technology to reach students. It is using online mentoring and even offering chess lessons and competitions virtually.
The organization hosted an online livestream Q&A about the new coronavirus, featuring doctors and representatives from the Milwaukee County Department of Health and Human Services on Wednesday as a resource to young people and their families.
“We have to depend more on high-tech than on high touch because of social distancing,” said Nazir Al-Mujaahid, director of outreach at MA’RUF.
Lessons for future?
Moore of the Milwaukee Office of Violence Prevention said this need for programs to innovate could be an opportunity to engage youth in new ways. His office is helping to coordinate strategies among organizations.
“Young people are online all day all the time,” Moore said. “They’re already living in a virtual environment. This seems like an opportunity for our systems and institutions to catch up on that.”
In the meantime, Roberson said she’s staying hopeful and helping her students do the same.
“I’m just trying to keep positive thoughts, and when it blows over, we’ll be back in action like never before,” she said. “I’m trying to tell myself that this is temporary, and it will pass.”
Resources you can use
Here is a running list of online resources for young people in Milwaukee. Reach out and let us know what we should add:
- Spectrum is offering free internet access.
- Safe and Sound is hosting youth discussions online every afternoon from 3-4 p.m. on Zoom and on Facebook Live.
- Urban Underground is periodically hosting virtual meetings for youth organizers.
- Discovery World live streaming from the aquarium.
- Signature Dance is live streaming online dance classes.
- The Jewish Museum of Milwaukee is live streaming exhibit tours and storytelling.
And here’s what we know about what youth-serving organizations are opened or closed. If you have updated information, let us know that, too.
All locations closed March 16-April 13, but still providing three meals a day at some locations, info here.
Closed, available as a resource to families, can be reached at (414) 931-6670 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Closed until further notice, food pantry open on Wednesdays and Saturdays
Closed March 16-30
Closed March 16-31, planning on reopening April 1 in new space at YWCA, Easter celebration on April 10 is cancelled
Closed to the public until April 13
Programming suspended until April 6, closed to public, providing virtual mentorship
Youth programming closed, older adult social programming closed, modified older adult meal service open, food pantry open, some housing work continuing
Closed March 16-29
Closed to public, team working remotely
Programming suspended, programs outside of recreation are being modified, staff connecting with youth remotely
Virtual plug-in on Facebook Live every day at 3 p.m.
Adult GED, adult employment, afterschool and teen programming canceled until April 13, Early Childhood Program is closed until further notice, all other activities/events are cancelled until further notice, emergency services/food pantry will remain open
Closed through at least April 5
Urban Underground is working virtually with youth members and their families during this time.
Closed until April 1
What are creative ways you are supporting the young people around you? Or if you are a young person, how are you supporting your friends when you aren’t seeing them as often? We’d love to hear from you and add to this list of resources below. You can email us at email@example.com, or you can text our reporter Allison at 262-497-5927.