It was raining when I looked out the window and saw a white piece of paper taped to the fence in front of our Boys & Girls Club. For a split second, the way it was flapping in the wind made it look like a white dove, perched there to remind us all that everything was going to be OK.
When I unfolded the wrinkled note, this is what I read:
“We really need peanut butter, jelly, bread, cereal, milk, eggs and soup … Thank you for helping people who really need it and who would go hungry. Every little thing helps.”
In the early days of the pandemic, the community need was overwhelming. What we heard over and over from parents was this: “The thing I need more than anything right now is food to feed my children."
There was no way our doors were going to stay closed. It was our responsibility to step up and step in to help the entire community.
One minute, our Clubs were providing after-school care, homework assistance and a safe place to learn and grow for 1,500 kids in the Paterson and Passaic communities of New Jersey. The next minute, we were an emergency food distribution center. Our gymnasium became a warehouse, Club staff became emergency relief workers, and our parking lots became food lines. We went from providing help with homework to using forklifts and pallet jacks to distribute a half a million pounds of food and 900,000 meals to our communities.
Peanut butter, jelly, bread. It’s the simple things that mean everything to families in the midst of a crisis.
From Struggle to Strength: A Path to Resilience
While the need for food still continues, childcare became essential as parents went back to work.
When kids returned to our Clubs, they were desperate for interaction and recreation. Although they weren’t able to greet their mentors with hugs or high fives, we created a new version of “high” and “low” fives using elbow bumps and foot taps.
While the mood was still jovial for our little ones, our teens faced greater challenges. When we brought them together with mental health experts, one shared, "I don’t want to pick up my phone and see somebody die again." They talked through the challenges of social media and anxiety and fear. What would happen without those healthy forums to share and seek guidance from experts and each other?
Because No Family Should Have to Choose Between Earning and Learning
Today, our local Clubs are open all day, not just after school, to ensure Club kids continue their education and don’t fall further behind
. Now, instead of being at the Club for four hours a day, kids are here for 10 hours, including breakfast and lunch.
Initially, many kids didn’t know how to use their laptops or access their classes and schedules. Club staff have been playing a deeper role, with 10 children to each staff member. In addition to facilitating learning and assisting with schoolwork, we launched a program called Let's Go Learn, an online assessment tool that shows how children are performing in math and reading by their grade level. Based on each child’s results, it builds a program to help them reach that standard. We used it for seven weeks during the summer and saw almost every child increase their proficiency by a half or full grade.
What we do at the Boys & Girls Club is about so much more than childcare. It truly is about leveling the playing field
, so every child has an equal opportunity to have a great future. It’s about partnering with the community and looking at every aspect of a child’s life — not just from the after-school hours of 3 p.m. to 7 p.m., but 24/7. Children need more than education and mentorship to succeed; they need a safe home to sleep in, food to eat, mental health care support and so much more.
So often people talk about changing the system. We are the system, and we can change it. If a child comes to the Boys & Girls Club and gets childcare but doesn’t have a safe home, great futures remain at risk. Likewise, if Habitat for Humanity builds a house for a family but that family doesn’t have childcare or food, there are still significant barriers. Locally, organizations like ours are working together as a community to ensure every child gets the chance he or she deserves. 2020 has shown us that we can do more than we ever imagined. When communities come together like we are in Patterson and Passaic, there’s nothing we can’t do.
And we’re just getting started.
Help Clubs do Whatever it Takes
Every child deserves the chance to exceed beyond the circumstances that surround them. Your donation to Boys & Girls Clubs of America
will ensure continued support for kids, families and communities to get through the overwhelming struggles that persist due to COVID-19 and deepening inequities. Together, one simple act will make a big impact for kids in our communities, today and every day.