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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.”

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