Courtesy Photo of Boys & Girls Club of the San Fernando Valley

A summit for teens in a converted “safe” room was one way the Boys & Girls Club in Pacoima connected with its membership despite the pandemic.

In a pandemic year when the coronavirus outbreak repeatedly forced businesses to close, nonprofit organizations like the Boys & Girls Club of the San Fernando Valley appeared in danger of surviving the elongated shutdown orders throughout the state.

But the club, located in Pacoima, has held on and continued to be a social way station for its members and their families in 2020. It did so with timely grants and donations, and the willingness of its staff to keep developing ways to serve its membership through virtual programming that both entertained and educated, and also by creating and maintaining a “pod” for its teen members to safely access computer technology and the internet for schoolwork.

“A lot of kudos have to go to our staff,” said club president and CEO Nicole Chase, ticking off names like Program Director Michael Long, Athletic Director Ian Smith and Learning Center Director Teresa Ramirez, among others. “They all stepped up big” by creating online story time reading, exercise videos, art and cooking classes, a short video contest and other virtual programming to help keep its members engaged.

Chase, like many others, did not anticipate a lengthy closure when the club had to shut its doors on March 16 for what turned out to be the first wave of the pandemic.“We closed our juvenile programs, but our family preservation programs continued,” she said. That program, sponsored through a grant by the county Department of Children and Family Services, offered in-home counseling and support for troubled families.

“Obviously we didn’t have counselors going into the homes when COVID-19 first hit. Instead [the parents] would bring the kids to windows so [counselors] could see if they were okay,” Chase said. The counselors also maintained audio and visual contact through phones or Zoom visits on computers.

But as the pandemic grew wider and grew worse, Chase said other decisions had to be made. Fundraising could be difficult in the best of times, and the club had endured some financial hardships before the pandemic. But continued bans on large gatherings for businesses considered “nonessential” could threaten the club’s survival.

She said the club was able to secure funding from the federal Paycheck Protection Program and “that helped save jobs.” And with the help of other financial donations, the club was able to purchase additional computer equipment, software and WiFi technology to create and dispense its virtual programming. It also converted a multi-purpose room inside the club into a “teen pod” for its high school youth membership.

The teen numbers were small — about 12-15 members overall, Chase said. But club officials saw it as a highly vulnerable group.

“Our first concern was if they had access to healthcare,” Chase said. “The communities of Pacoima and Sylmar have some of the highest rates for [COVID-19] infection. And in terms of income, [many residents] are far below the median income level.

“We know if you go to a hospital, they have to take care of you. But I don’t know, culturally speaking or if the dynamics of the family, if they knew how to differentiate between a cold, the flu, or COVID.”

Another, possibly bigger problem was looming, however.

“We have a digital divide in the Northeast San Fernando Valley — and it’s huge,” Chase said. “We have members who have no access to the internet or technology. They literally didn’t have anything. We had one young man walking from his home to his school so he could use his phone to do his homework [by connecting to] the school internet.

“The pandemic was an ‘unknown’ to all of us. But what are the other ‘unknowns’ that are going to impact the communities? With the digital divide, how were they going to continue their education and still be able to compete? Our high school seniors who have been testing [for college]; were they going to be able to compete with the more affluent families who can afford tutors, and can make sure they have computer access to their teachers?”

The “teen pod” opened in early July. Chase said all necessary protocols, from sanitizing to social distancing, were followed.

“There might be 1-2 kids at a table with a divider between them, but they could still talk to each other. We kept our ‘E-sports’ programs going so they could do team-building there. Those were some of the things we kept trying to build on.”

She said there was immediate, positive feedback.

“We had a parent whose son — a sophomore in high school — was struggling academically,” Chase said. “He was not really getting a quality education virtually or having an engaging teacher, so he wasn’t completing homework, wasn’t paying attention. You can ‘Zoom’ out very easily, just leave your picture up there on the screen. He was becoming more distant.

“But, the mother said, she noticed an immediate difference when he came to the club pod. He immediately got back on track with his studies, and doing his homework.”

For the fall and winter, with the help of sponsors, the club was able host a free flu-shot clinic for families, Chase said. And it was also enabled to do a drive-thru toy and gift giveaway for members — that included 100 pairs of donated Nike tennis shoes — for the holidays.

The selfless efforts of the club staff and timely financial aid the club received when it was needed most is something Chase said she will always remember about this highly forgettable year.

At least the year 2020 is practically out the door. And Chase said she is looking forward to the day when the club does not have to operate “virtually” but instead can actually see and hear club members in person.

“I am looking forward to hearing the voices of the kids as they run through the halls,” she said. “Just the idea of hearing so many voices; kids engaged in the activities in our gymnasium and game room, creating art, having fun.

“I know it’s quite a ways away, and we’ll probably still have some COVID protocols to abide by. But I think when you hear the laughter of a child just having fun, learning something new, you don’t realize how much it impacts you until it’s not there.”

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