[Written by Jordyn Roark, Director of Youth Leadership & Scholarships, SchoolHouse Connection]

As a college student, I experienced a devastating hurricane, where most of the town I lived in was flooded. I remember this experience as being scary, filled with loss, and ultimately extremely traumatic — especially on top of the trauma of my own homelessness. As I navigate my current professional role supporting students who are homeless during the Coronavirus outbreak, I have been reflecting on my experiences as a student.  While there are many similarities between hurricanes and COVID-19, there is also one stark difference. As a society, we had the technology to track the hurricane. We knew when it would hit and we knew when it would end. We couldn’t predict the extent of loss, but we could at least hold fast to the mantra of “this too shall pass,” with an expected date of when we would see the sun again. 

COVID-19 is like an untraceable hurricane.

While confronting the tremendous uncertainty of when and how it will end, I have been asking myself “How do we best support our students amidst the unknown?” Like many, I have been doing my best to navigate this unfamiliar territory, day by day. In just a few weeks, I have learned a lot. I’d like to share some of the strategies I have used to support our SchoolHouse Connection scholars and young leaders in the hopes that it will help others, as well as begin to build a foundation for best practices in the midst of a global pandemic. 

Basic Needs

1. Reach out early and proactively to let students know that you are there for them, and that either you have resources, or that you will help connect them to resources as needs arise. 

First and foremost, my number one goal is to meet the immediate basic needs of our SHC scholars and young leaders. When the COVID-19 outbreak first started, we reached out to these students individually through text. This was before many of our students had lost jobs, before social distancing was widely implemented, and before the United States had cases in all 50 states. During this initial contact, a few of our students already had needs, but many were still doing okay. Looking back, this initial contact was critical, not just for meeting basic needs, but for opening the line of communication where we made sure our scholars knew, “If you need anything at all, we are here and we have resources.” As a result, our students felt comfortable reaching out as the COVID-19 outbreak progressed, and subsequently we have been able to immediately meet new needs as they arise each week.

2. Provide stipends to students across the board, if possible, because even if basic needs are met, COVID-19 is causing financial strains for everyone.

In addition to meeting needs as scholars shared them, we felt it was critical to provide some financial stipends to all of our current scholars via Paypal. We provided this funding because we knew that even if students hadn’t lost jobs, or had other circumstances they would deem as urgent, they likely would be spending additional money on groceries, gas money when they had to move out of dorms, and other costs associated with social distancing. Like many non-profits, we didn’t and don’t have a line-item for “global pandemic.” We have cash on hand to cover the costs, and we’ll figure out how to adjust our budget later; our scholars need us now. Most of our donors have offered us flexibility to help us support our network, including our youth.

3. Meet unmet medical needs and provide access to medical care. 

While we have not had any of our scholars develop symptoms related to COVID-19, we are prepared to provide monetary and case management assistance with helping students access medical care and the resources necessary to heal and quarantine.

Mental, Social, and Emotional Needs

1. Prioritize mental health check-ins. 

While COVID-19 is stressful for everyone, it can be especially traumatic to young people who have or are experiencing homelessness, and who have had previous traumatic experiences. The loss of control, the unknown, and the lack of resources can be triggering and make the already painful situation even more difficult. As one of our young leaders said on our Facebook group, “I appreciate the space to vent with others who understand the panic feeling you get when you can’t work because you remember exactly where that road can lead.” We have been intentional in our outreach to check in on how students are doing, outside of their basic food and housing needs. Amidst a crisis, it can be easy to focus solely on physical needs that are undoubtedly critical; however, to best support students, I would argue that it is equally critical to focus on social-emotional well-being, because this is the foundation for our ability to cope, and our mental health impacts our physical health.

2. Make one-on-one phone calls and Facetime sessions to talk about any and everything!

Outside of the strategic check-in conversations, I have been scheduling phone calls and Facetime sessions with our scholars to talk about whatever they want to talk about. The media coverage of COVID-19 is pervasive – everywhere we turn, all we see or hear about is COVID-19. This can make the situation feel even more overwhelming. It is important to dedicate time and space for other conversations. These conversations have been powerful, because they are often grounding, refreshing, and overall positively impactful for one’s mental health.

3. Share online resources related to self-care and physical and mental health.

Many authors, public speakers, yoga studios, gyms, and even therapists have been releasing content online for free during the COVID-19 outbreak. I have been utilizing these resources to efficiently provide additional support to our students. 

4. Conduct group activities to promote peer support and togetherness. 

While SchoolHouse Connection’s YLS program has always placed great emphasis on peer-to-peer support, we are finding that it is especially important during the COVID-19 outbreak. We are working to facilitate this support by doing check-ins in our group chats, where students can hear and respond to each other, as well as by hosting group-wide activities. It can be challenging to host group events for a national program via the internet, but we have had success with a few creative solutions. 

  • First, we have been utilizing www.netflixparty.com to host movie nights. This website does require a laptop with a chrome browser and a netflix account (free trials are available), but many of our students had these resources and were able to join. This allowed us to stream movies or TV shows on Netflix, where we were all watching at the same time, and it gave us a chat box on the side of the movie screen where we could share our reactions and thoughts about the movie. 
  • Secondly, we have been offering video conference classes. The first class was a Spanish lesson with Patricia Julianelle, SHC’s Director of Program Advancement and Legal Affairs, who is bilingual. Many of our scholars expressed interest in classes such as these, because classes allow them to get their minds off the anxiety of the outbreak, to learn something new, and to have face-to-face time with other students and staff. These classes could be on anything from self-care practices, to meditation, to drawing stick figures 101. Getting creative and offering the space for discussion and community is the most important part, and we are finding these practices have been very beneficial for our students. 

Image above: Jordyn Roark, Director of Youth Leadership & Scholarships (second from right) with our young leaders in Washington, DC.

5. Offer employment when possible.

After strict social distancing procedures went into place, one of our scholars shared that they felt lost, because they weren’t able to engage in meaningful work, and they had too much alone time. In response, we drafted a paid contract where we let the student customize the projects they would complete. In this way, we could be sure that the work was of interest to the student, and gave them additional financial security, while also meeting social and emotional needs. 

6. Lastly, if you can do nothing else, recognize and validate the difficult experiences our students are having. 

Resources and capacities to serve students vary by organization and by individual. However, what we can all do, collectively, is recognize and validate that what our students are experiencing is difficult, and may be triggering past trauma responses. It is critical that we build and provide safe spaces where students can reach out to receive guidance, emotional and physiological support, and escape from the day-to-day influx of COVID-19 information.

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