Youth Services’ play-based after school club, Friends For Change, was recently recognized for innovation during the pandemic at a virtual forum hosted Vermont Afterschool, Inc. Comprised of afterschool programs, state agencies, policy makers and funders, the forum showcased ways that programs are stepping forward in all kinds of important and creative ways to extend supports to children, youth and families in their local communities.
Emilie Kornheiser, Youth Services’ Director of Workforce Development described her program’s transition from a face-to-face youth-led/adult guided, trauma-informed club in Bellows Falls to one where staff initially filling a “first responder” role, ensuring that disconnected youth had everything from healthy food to internet access to toilet paper to over the course of a month, the group successfully transitioning to a virtually connected, social emotional intelligence play-based group.
“I’ve been blown away with the capacity of our team,” Kornheiser related, as she described not only the daily check-ins and school-work assistance that one would expect but nature walks on the phone to motivate the youth to get outdoors, virtual scavenger hunts in museums and deep emotional circles which provide the space for participants to mourn the changed landscape of their lives. “Somehow staff were able to take that spirit and translate it into the work they were doing virtually,” she said.
Because the club has been designed for and by youth who have stories of resiliency, Friends for Change provides programming specifically for youth who have experienced trauma associated with poverty, discrimination, and or experiences with foster care and/or family instability. Providing space for youth to talk with one another about issues they care deeply about has always been a hallmark of the group whose members range in age from elementary through high school. That includes validation of their gender identity and feelings of isolation which they may not be able to safely share at home.
“Sometimes our team and the other youth group members are the only people recognizing these youth in their own gender identity,” said Kornheiser. “When there isn’t a pandemic going on, this is an absolute lifeline; during COVID, it can be a life or death support that we are giving! So this is some of the most important work that we’re doing,” she explained.