‘Our young people are struggling’: Supporting youth in need during COVID-19

With schools and community centres closed, organizations that help youth across Ontario are learning on the fly — and getting creative
By Priya Iyer - Published on May 07, 2020
Weston Frontlines Centre getting breakfast ready for distribution to youth.  (facebook.com/frontlines.to)

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When COVID-19 lockdown measures went into effect at the beginning of March break, and youth spaces across the province were shuttered, Stachen Frederick, the executive director of Frontlines, a youth-support organization in Toronto’s Weston neighbourhood, knew she needed to keep its programs open. “Our young people are struggling,” she says. “No matter what, we have to figure out a way to continue some of our services, if not all.”  

A similar scenario played out across Ontario, as organizations and youth workers scrambled to find ways to meet the needs of some of the most vulnerable kids in the province with schools and community and recreation centres closed.

With social distancing, we’re confined to a specific place, and we’re not used to it. We’re social creatures; we like going out,” says Leena Augimeri, director at the Child Development Institute, whose programs support families and kids 12 and under with behavioural needs. “So how do we do this at a time when there are many social restrictions out there? It’s not easy.”

With so many spaces closed, Mahum Ahmed, 27, a clinical youth-outreach worker in Peel Region, was most concerned for youth in traumatic situations, such as abusive homes, or transient housing. “They don’t have an out anymore,” she says. Ahmed is part of the province’s youth-outreach-worker program and its only clinical counsellor to work across all communities in Peel. Her clients are older, between 16 and 21. Most have low-income backgrounds, she says, and rely on drop-in programs at community centres. Outreach workers, she notes, would sometimes hold workshops just to provide kids with dinner: “Now they’re just stuck at home, which is scary."

So organizations have been pivoting to fill the gaps. In northeast London, when school buildings closed, so, too, did the breakfast programs that parents in precarious living conditions relied on, says Elisabete Rodrigues, executive director at Luso Community Services. Luso’s catchment schools include one of Ontario’s most disadvantaged, and many of her clients are newcomers. Normally, the organization’s breakfast programs run on school holidays, such as March break, or in the summers. But because of COVID-19 closures, Rodrigues says, they’ve been running breakfast pickups daily, reaching around 400 to 500 kids each week: in terms of breakfast services, “we’re pretty much it now — we’re trying to reach as many kids as we can,” she says, adding that they’re asking for donations to help meet the need. 

The youth Frontlines serves are also among Ontario’s most vulnerable: as of 2016, the riding had the fifth-highest overall child-poverty rate in Toronto, at 33.7 per cent. It’s among the 30 ridings with the highest child-poverty rate in Canada. 

Kids had been looking forward to March-break programming, such as a trip to the Ontario Science Centre, when the closures occurred. “We knew we couldn’t just leave the community with no support,” said Latisha Taylor, the children’s-program coordinator. In a normal year, around 400 kids would access its programs, which cover a range of topics, including academic tutoring, cooking skills, and violence prevention. Like other organizations, Frontlines pivoted online. Taylor logs in every week to manage homework club, games, and Netflix nights. Usually, kids get meals at the programs — now Frontlines is providing grocery and meal pickups to around 115 people per week, Frederick says, adding that a partnership with Second Harvest will allow them to provide up to 1,000 meals.   

But not all organizations were able to transition immediately. Jean Augustine Centre has been providing after-school programming to girls in Toronto’s South Etobicoke area since 2014. Cofounder and former MP Jean Augustine says that, because of COVID-19, the centre has lost funding; it cancelled programming for two months, but, with the help of volunteers, is offering some programs again. It currently has a GoFundMe target of $100,000, 16 per cent of which was raised in a little more than 10 days. “The generosity of people, however small, is helping ensure that organizations in the community can survive, and provide that sense of community, hope and sense of belonging to young people,” Augustine says.

The prospect of missed academic opportunities is also weighing heavily on kids. “Because of the unknowns, anxiety levels are so high,” says Brent Esau, program director at Hamilton’s Compass Community Health.  He manages the region’s Pathways to Education program, the made-in-Toronto initiative — now in communities across Canada — that supports high-schoolers from low-income neighbourhoods. When COVID-19 closures occurred, Esau says, Compass’s roster had 700 students, many of them newcomers, from three high-needs neighbourhoods: “How do we support these youth — how do we communicate to their families? Staff are learning on the fly.”  

One student’s September acceptance to a college program, he says, has now been deferred to January: “The student’s like, what do I do between now and January? We’re trying to keep an ongoing communication so that they know that we’re supporting them, we’re figuring this out.”

Ahmed says that she’s heard from one client who has been losing sleep and unable to focus on schoolwork — and that hearing them say, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do” was difficult.

Stress in the home has only increased,” says Erin Rajca, clinician at the Child Development Institute. She has been helping families cope by instructing them to maintain a sense of routine. It’s important that families have opportunities to connect, feel understood, and safe, she says, “given that people are limited in terms of what they can do.” 

Taylor has been missing seeing her kids.They’re very honest, they’re very funny, they are very strong,” she says. “You see children who are going through tough things, but they’re so happy and vibrant — it shows they’re resilient. When this is over, I can’t wait to see their beautiful faces.”

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