By Mary Coleman
- Mary Coleman is executive director at City of Promise, a nonprofit that provides cradle-to-college academic support for youth from Charlottesville.
- As the coronavirus changes everyday life, the new “School of COVID-19” is exposing the resilience may families already have.
- Many youth-serving individuals and organizations are recognizing the strong coping strategies already in our communities.
Schools may be closed throughout the country, but the “School of COVID-19” is hosting classes every day. What is the pandemic teaching those of us who serve youth? More importantly, how can we apply those lessons now and long after the emergency has passed?
As executive director at City of Promise, these questions loom upon my staff and me in our service to children and families in Charlottesville. Our program – modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone – has always depended upon in-person, on-the-street, and at-school engagement with youth. Moving to virtual academic coaching and mentoring was a painful transition, especially for staff with children at home who also need care and attention. The “School of COVID-19” forced us to dig deep to find the same kind of resilience we expect of the families we serve. The tables have turned. Those children and their parents are now our master teachers in the “School of COVID-19.”
For example, while the rest of us scramble and cry in the face of job loss and personal disruption, low-income persons draw from the strength they have built over time. The sad truth is, they have been here before. They have filed for unemployment before. They have relied on the food bank before. They have waited by the mailbox for government checks before.
While the rest of us complain about our hair salons being shuttered, black families carry on. They have been doing hair in the kitchen forever. Surviving without childcare or grandparents on call is tough, but it’s a daily reality for moms in our neighborhood. Can’t go anywhere because you’re sheltered in place? This is what it feels like for families who don’t have cars.
And what about virtual learning? Welcome to the world of those who always feel overwhelmed by their kid’s homework. COVID-19 is teaching us that being thrown into financial and personal uncertainty wears people down and creates household chaos that makes learning difficult. Coronavirus has taught us that Maslow was right: when basic needs are threatened, confidence and creativity are suppressed (read more about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs).
Those of us who find this stress new and overwhelming can turn what we are feeling into fresh resolve in our advocacy work by acknowledging the inner strength of the youth we serve.
Those who regularly face trauma and disruption show up to our after-school programs willing to engage. They never let on about how hard it is to jump through our hoops. Just the other day, one of our pathway coaches led a virtual session with a 6th grader who – determined to find a quiet place in her cramped public-housing unit – chose the floor next to the commode. This kid deserves our respect. She could write a book about “grit.”
And what about the parents? I spoke with a mom who came to City of Promise for the cleaning products and Kroger cards we distribute each Friday (thanks to donations restricted for COVID-19 relief). With a smile, she narrated the pride she felt because the trials of coronavirus haven’t plunged her into depression like they may have in the past. My eyes burned with tears as I realized that I focus too much on how far these parents have to go, instead of seeing how far they’ve come. This mom taught me a lesson about my own deficit thinking.
I’m sure many of us can admit that COVID-19 has exposed just how far we have to go as youth-serving individuals and organizations. It has exposed our lack of empathy. It has exposed our resignation that some children just don’t ever have internet or food on the weekend. It has exposed our complacency regarding a multitude of inequities and broken systems that make life difficult for the people we are trying to help. But if we are willing, we can learn from those very same people. They have so much to teach us. And we have so much to learn.
Author Bio: Mary Coleman is executive director at City of Promise, a nonprofit that provides cradle-to-college academic support for youth living in the 10th and Page, Westhaven, and Starr Hill communities in Charlottesville. A fundraiser by profession, Mary served from 2005 to 2012 as Director of Donor Relations at Woodberry Forest School in Madison County, Virginia. Later, as Director of Institutional Advancement at The Covenant School in Charlottesville, Mary managed fundraising, parent programs, marketing, and alumni relations. In 2017, Mary became development director at City of Promise where she raised the profile of the organization in Charlottesville. Mary is a trauma and resilience trainer through the Greater Charlottesville Trauma-Informed Community Network.