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Community rallies around students

Community rallies around students

Editor’s note: This is the sixth in a series about meeting the needs of students during the pandemic.

In 1728, a March 20 issue of the Boston Gazette advertised shorthand (handwriting) lessons that could be mailed to citizens who happened to live outside of the Boston area: “Any persons in the country desirous to learn this art, may by having the several lessons sent weekly to them, be as perfectly instructed as those that live in Boston.” (https://doi.org/10.1002/cc.169) Institutionally-sponsored distance education was first cited in 1874 at Illinois Wesleyan University, and the term “distance education” was first used in a University of Wisconsin-Madison catalog for the 1892 school year. (www.uwex.edu/ics/design/disedu2.htm)

Nearly 300 years after the first recorded instance of “distance education,” local school systems are still learning how to implement virtual learning for Greene County students due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. From the shuttering of schools and businesses in March 2020 through a full year of virtual and hybrid learning models, social distancing adaptations and countless Zoom meetings, issues of equitable internet access, food insecurity and mental health concerns have been at the forefront of educators’ and decision-makers’ minds.

Luckily, Greene County is a community where people help each other out in times of crisis.

Shortly after the shuttering of schools in March 2020, Greene County Public Schools began to offer free meals to families who had depended on the schools to provide breakfast and lunch for their children. This would later be paid for through federal CARES Act (COVID relief) funding. Pre-packaged healthy meals are still being given out weekly in a drive-thru format for any parents who request the assistance.

As of press time, 153,712 total meals have been distributed to virtual Greene County students either through curbside pickup or delivery in the past year, according to Director of Administrative Services Kyle Pursel. Adding in free meals provided to in-person students during that same time frame, the total free meals offered has been 275,229.

“When the pandemic started and schools closed, the (United States Department of Agriculture), authorized by the CARES Act, relaxed many restrictions and regulations that school food operations comply with in order to provide free meals for all children,” said Jennifer Williams, school nutrition director. “When school started in September, we were allowed to continue offering free meals to students learning both in person and virtually. Students can’t learn if they’re hungry, so it’s really important that these meals are available, especially during this time when the number of families in need has grown.”

Mental health is another challenge children face during the pandemic. Region Ten, established in 1969 to offer mental health, developmental disability and substance use services to Charlottesville and the surrounding counties, has seen an uptick in service requests in the past year, according to community relations coordinator and social worker Joanna Jennings.

“The biggest struggle for our children and teens has been the isolation from friends, family and significant people in their lives,” she said. “The need for being social has completely changed, and many students are more withdrawn than they were before March of last year. Many children have not been able to see their relatives during the holidays or at other events like birthdays and special occasions, and they feel that loss … One year later, many of our teens are still grieving the loss of so many pre-pandemic parts of their lives, and in general it can be hard for parents to know how to support their children through grief.”

Through existing relationships with school counselors and administrators, Region Ten local staff have been able to reach out to families when concerns about a specific student are identified.

“We know from research that the presence of a caring, supportive adult is one of the keys to building resilience … (many) have lost connectedness to supports that have naturally been there for them,” Jennings said. “We expect that the upcoming one-year anniversary may bring up a lot of ‘big feelings’ for teens and are encouraging parents to listen and acknowledge their feelings.”

All Region Ten outpatient therapy services pivoted to a telehealth platform at the beginning of the pandemic, which Jennings said has proven to be more accessible for some teenagers.

“One protective factor throughout the pandemic is that teens have been able to connect through social media, call apps, FaceTime and other options and are very technologically savvy,” she said. “We also have been able to speak by phone with our teens who do not have access to adequate internet services.”

Another local resource that normally helps students is the Youth Development Council (YDC). Since 2014, YDC has been offering underserved children in Greene summer camp and after-school programs at no cost to the families. With comprehensive programming offering a wide range of educational, self-improvement and character-building activities, YDC concentrates on maintaining a low staff-to-student ration to give these children meaningful long-lasting relationships that instill trust and enhance individual development.

Prior to the pandemic, YDC kids met at Nathanael Greene Elementary school (NGES) and William Monroe Middle School twice weekly. Ruckersville Elementary School students could also take the bus to NGES to participate, and they would be provided free healthy snacks as well as the various activities. In partnership with James Madison University (JMU)’s occupational therapy program, JMU students would visit once a week to provide behavioral regulation activities and YDC even took kids on field trips to do community service work or even out to dinner occasionally.

“Right now, we’re still maintaining our relationship with 50 students and their families … through phone conversation, text and email,” Alley said. “Through these conversations with the families, we’ve been able to understand the needs of our YDC families during the pandemic and hopefully be able to assist them. Especially at the beginning of the pandemic, everybody was looking for hand wipes and toilet paper … so we were able to assist some of our families with toiletries, food—we’ve even provided birthday and Christmas presents.”

Since no after-school programming is being held at the elementary and middle schools this year due to COVID protocols, Alley said his team has focused on maintaining relationships with their existing students and families but look forward to expanding once they are back in school once more.

“We are providing boxes—we call them after-school boxes—filled with the STEM projects … arts and crafts, recipes and outdoor activities … just like the ones that we offer in the after-school program,” Alley said. “And the boxes contain all the materials, the ingredients and instructions needed for each activity, so Mom and Dad don’t have to go pick up any kind of materials.”

Each month, YDC staff and volunteers have assembled and delivered boxes to all of the 50 students on their roster. With six to eight activities in each box along with healthy snacks and recipes, this semester they’ve also begun to include books per reading level for each student in the home. The March box included a yoga mat for each child and images of Star Wars characters performing various stretches and yoga poses. A past activity used superheroes to talk to kids about regulating emotions, such as the Incredible Hulk to demonstrate managing anger or Wonder Woman talking about truth and honesty.

“JMU students are providing two activities as well so that will be a little material and instruction, but they will also tell why they’re doing the activity, you know—will it help them with their stress level, their anxiety, if they’re sad or what do you do if you get upset—things like that,” Alley said. “We’re also trying to do some virtual art, so right now we’re offering drum lessons to our kids and so we’ll drop off a drum pad and drum sticks.”

This spring, YDC is also piloting a mentoring program where it pairs volunteers from the high school with kids who may need someone to talk to. The mentoring is also all-virtual, of course.

“Many of our families were worried about their kids having someone to confide in,” Alley said. “Many of our families that we work with are single-parent homes—I would say at least 75%—and so one of the requests that we’ve received from some of our families is something like a big sister/big brother-type program. We have some juniors and seniors from the high school that have volunteered with YDC before … that are working with 10 of our YDC students just communicating through text and emails and FaceTime. It can be a lonely time for some of our students and this has really had some positive feedback from some families.”

Alley is associate pastor for Spring Hill Baptist Church and says the YDC volunteers have had fantastic support from many area churches as well as Feeding Greene Inc. and the Region Ten counseling staff.

“Every once in a while we’ll drop off a box and you get to see them—you’ll get to see mom or the kids come out and grab the box and you can say hello to them and it’s just kind of like a reunion,” Alley said. “As you can tell, I really miss it, so I’ll be glad when we can hopefully meet again and get back together.”

In the past, YDC kids have helped pack groceries for delivery at Feeding Greene. On July 2, 2020, six adult leaders and eight YDC kids helped Feeding Greene tie-dye more than 1,000 masks to hand out to families in the community.

“We had been handing out many white cloth masks to families but with the hot summer months I just thought they’d get so stained with use and I was already in good supply of dyes and solutions from many years of tie-dying T-shirts,” said Feeding Greene Director Rhonda Oliver. “The most memorable moment was when the kids first arrived and seeing their excitement of just seeing their friends again. They made comments about each other and about how they had changed—like their hair or how tall they had gotten. The reality of these kids sheltering at home and not seeing their friends for so long never hit me until that moment.”

In addition to YDC, Oliver says the food pantry has received support from county extension agent Kathy Alstat’s 4-H Club members to box food, unload trucks and help clean the pantry each month.

“We’ve had a lot of help from students loading cars on Tuesdays and Thursdays and helping to serve families on Saturdays,” Oliver said. “The families we serve have made comments that they love seeing the youth out there helping.”

According to Oliver, Feeding Greene saw a 96% increase in the number of individuals served in 2020 with the biggest increase being in children age 17 and under (104% increase) and an 85% increase in the number of visits to the pantry over past years. Various federal funding sources have helped the pantry keep up with demand, and the move to the new location on Main Street in Stanardsville helped with the need for more space to store food items.

“The average household size doubled when we started serving more families with children home from school,” Oliver said. “We began providing special bags of food to families with children and we continue to offer these to families at each visit. The need is not going away anytime soon.”

The food bank has coordinated efforts with the local schools to try to get food to families with children throughout the pandemic and Oliver says she has continued to be impressed by the neighborhood response.

“Greene County citizens have really stepped up to help meet the needs of the families in our community,” she said. “There was a real effort by local agencies, other non-profits and clubs, churches, businesses, individuals and entire families to come together to offer what they could to help us get food to families. We absolutely witnessed the best in mankind during the pandemic and we should all feel very blessed to be a community that cares for one another. It’s easy to get tired and worn out from the heavy workload and long hours, but we are always mindful that working together, perseverance and building new relationships are crucial if we’re going to make an impact in our community.”

For students or parents in need of mental health support, visit regionten.org/locations/greene-counseling-center.

For information about Youth Development Council or to make a donation to support the nonprofit, visit greeneyouth.org.

Feeding Greene is in need of donations to help renovate their new building to add a walk-in freezer and cooler. For more information, visit feedinggreeneinc.org.

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