Editor’s Note: Dawn Page is the Vice President of Operations at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Sarasota County
For 50 years and through thick and thin, Boys & Girls Clubs of Sarasota County has worked tirelessly to be a beacon of hope and opportunity for thousands of local children and families, especially for those who need us most. With incredible support from the community, we’ve helped our Club families prevail through economic crises, natural disasters and national tragedies. Today’s unprecedented situation is no different.
When COVID-19 turned our world upside down in March and forced schools and critical businesses to close their doors, a single mother of two Boys & Girls Club members called me in tears, afraid of the unknown. Suddenly, her two babies did not have a safe place to learn, play and grow while she worked to put food on their table and keep a roof over their heads. They immediately lost access to vital resources that kept them on track to achieve their full potential. Her little boys were catapulted into the at-risk category for learning loss, skill regression and food insecurity.
Unfortunately, this sweet mother and her sons are just one of the thousands of families across our community who felt hopeless at the start of this pandemic. Many of our Club members’ caregivers had to continue working during this crisis as essential workers at places like grocery or convenience stores, healthcare facilities and distribution centers. Other Club guardians quickly found themselves unemployed with no sort of income to pay for basic needs.
While we immediately transformed our operations and launched new initiatives to help our Club families navigate this challenging time, a staggering number of children still faced unique challenges at home that kept them from accessing, learning and retaining their schoolwork.
Despite the remarkable efforts of schools and teachers, recent studies suggest children are more likely to experience an academic relapse due to the pandemic, otherwise known as the “COVID slide” or “COVID slowdown.” This concern is even more daunting for students who lack the resources and tools necessary to achieve state standards. Whether children are experiencing hunger or witnessing a parent file for unemployment, the pandemic has exacerbated long-standing opportunity gaps and threatens the livelihood of our community’s future leaders if they fall behind academically.
Thanks to partners like Community Foundation of Sarasota County, we closed the achievement gap this summer for children through our Great Futures Academy at no cost to their families. Great Futures Academy was made possible in part by the Allen Wirtz Nobbe and Jo Bowen Nobbe Fund and Edward K. Roberts Emerging Needs Fund of the Community Foundation, and ran Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. at our six Club locations across Sarasota and DeSoto Counties. The program featured academic enrichment activities with supplemental curriculum designed to empower youth to excel in school, become leaders, adopt healthy habits and plan for success after high school graduation.
In a #GreatFuturesFriday video, Jasmine, a member of the Lee Wetherington Boys & Girls Clubs of Sarasota County, shares her dream: “When I grow up, I want to be a doctor, so I know that my grades are important. I know that I’ll stay on track thanks to the Great Futures Academy. Thank you for helping me reach my full potential.”
The program was built with our Club members’ safety as the top priority in accordance with the health protocols set forth by federal and local officials including the Centers for Diseases Control & Prevention (CDC) and the Florida Department of Health. Some of our heightened safety efforts included:
- All Club staff and Club members had to have their temperatures taken upon arrival each day;
- Club personnel and children were required to wear masks at all times;
- Additional sanitizing stations were installed throughout our six Club facilities;
- Routine cleanings of program areas were completed multiple times a day;
- Groups were divided to adhere to CDC guidelines with a 1:9 staff-to-member ratio; and
- Activities were created to maintain the CDC’s 6 ft. social distancing recommendations.
We also had to restrict the number of participants to 660 children with the greatest academic needs from Title I schools, as well as, those from local first responder families. Typically, our summer program serves about 2,500 children. As one can imagine, the decision to significantly reduce the number of children who could be served this summer was extremely difficult. We know the need for positive youth development programs far exceeds the capacity in which our organization could safely deliver during this difficult time. However, this did not diminish our level of impact.
In fact, every child in the program received free meals and snacks each day and participated in high-quality, educational enrichment activities with youth development professionals and certified teachers. Our Club members’ mental and emotional well-being was also a top priority; we welcomed four social workers trained in socioemotional health to our team. These remarkable professionals helped our Club members understand and manage feelings of despair, anxiety and stress caused by the pandemic. You can watch this video to see Great Futures Academy in action with Venesha Graham, Program Director at our Lee Wetherington Boys & Girls Club.
By the end of the summer, 92 percent of our Club members who were struggling academically showed improvement in key subjects like Reading and Language Arts. While we are exceptionally proud of this statistic, it is the heartfelt stories from Club members like Jasmine and Club parents like Mireya that makes us realize how incredibly lucky we are to live in a community that prioritizes youth-development programs like ours during the times when local children and families need us the most.
As the coronavirus crisis continues to evolve, our Clubs are here to help rebuild our community and restore a sense of safety and security for kids and caregivers that has been lost during the pandemic. With support from our community and partners like the Community Foundation of Sarasota County, GREAT FUTURES will continue to START HERE.
To support or learn more about the Boys & Girls Clubs of Sarasota County, visit bgcsarasota.com.