Every day, Charity Lezama, Executive Director of the Salem YMCA, does two things: cope with Covid and ask vital questions.
This has meant keeping kids safe and rebuilding programs that had been shuttered by the pandemic.
It has also meant actively asking: “How do we push ourselves to think bigger? How do we ensure that our kids can thrive in and outside of our program?” Lezama says.
The YMCA is a City Connects community partner in the Salem Public School system, and its pandemic story is one of persistence and partnerships that City Connects is proud to contribute to.
The pandemic’s challenges have been tough. Before Covid, the YMCA served 540 kids in its afterschool program, including students from City Connects’ schools. Since the pandemic, the program has shrunk to less than half that size. Kids’ and families’ needs have soared. And finding qualified staff has been difficult.
But in the face of a global disaster, the YMCA took action. In the fall of 2020, its board added a committee that focuses on social emotional learning and mental health.
“We recognized that the students we serve and our members were dealing with social isolation, fear, anxiety, all the stresses of the pandemic. And the social inequities became a priority for us to respond to,” Lezama says. “So we started the committee to network in our community so we could see where the Y could step in and fill voids or whether there are other programs that we can bring to the Y to make them more accessible for our families.”
The committee identified the need to hire a social worker, Gloria Gonzalez, who serves as Director of Behavioral Health. Lezama says that she had the example of a City Connects coordinator in mind when Gonzalez was hired because of the similarities in the work that the YMCA and City Connects do.
The early months of this job have been busy.
“Ask Gloria what are some of the factors that are impacting kids, and the first thing she says is that their parents are stressed,” Lezama explains. “Kids are living in that environment, and then they go to school where the teachers are stressed. So there is no calm place for a lot of these kids.”
In the past few months, Gonzalez has seen multiple needs.
“The greatest need is working with kids to teach them how to appropriately socialize with each other,” Gonzalez says, pointing out that factors including Covid, remote school, how masks interfere with interpersonal communication, and the almost daily change in safety guidelines, “has contributed to kids having challenges with social emotional skills.”
Gonzalez is also spending time identifying children who are struggling a lot. And she is providing professional development to help staff manage kids’ challenging behaviors.
For many families, however, the pandemic is only one of many problems. They also face food and housing insecurity, lost jobs, low salaries, and a chronic lack of access to health and mental health resources.
“Because the Y is in touch with some families for as long as 18 years, we wanted to leverage these relationships by embedding systems that really support families in meaningful ways.”
This work is making the YMCA a stronger community partner for City Connects. And City Connects is continuing to link the YMCA to more children and families.
“In the last three years, the ability to pick up the phone and call a City Connects coordinator has been so important,” Lezama says.
“If you’re working in a school that doesn’t have City Connects, who do you call? The principals and staff are overwhelmed. Some teachers will engage with us when we’re trying to work with a particular student, but some are too busy.”
As the YMCA moves forward, it is committed to answering the question of how to better serve kids and parents.
This has meant something as simple as discovering one family’s love of comic books and using this as a foundation for social-emotional skill building. It could also mean realizing that a child taking a short-release time medication would be better served by a medication that releases more slowly over the course of the day.
“It’s really easy in all of our jobs to come in and be task-oriented, because things are just so busy right now and everyone is short staffed and undermanned. But we’re also realizing how important it is to pay attention to everyone’s story. That’s a big part of the work that Gloria has been doing, intentionally focusing on a kid’s story and on a family’s story.”
Getting to know kids, families, and stories is also at the heart of what City Connects does, and it’s why our community partnership with the YMCA helps us do better at our work of getting the right services, to the right child, at the right time.