The Chicago Youth Centers network provides after-school programs and enrichment opportunities to around 1,400 kids at 15 locations around the city, including community centers and inside schools.
But the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing safety precautions in Illinois have halted the organization’s in-person services across the city. And officials say the impact will have lasting repercussions in the communities it serves.
“We’re ready to serve the community however we can, but you know, when this is over, and it will end, the pressure that’s going to be put on those who are already living in poverty is going to be astronomical, and we need to be ready to answer that need,” said Kevin Cherep, the organization’s president and CEO.
Cherep says as long as Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order is in place, CYC locations will have to remain closed. That includes the Rebecca Crown Center in the South Shore neighborhood.
We asked Cherep to tell us more about the CYC. The following Q&A has been edited:
What kind of programs does the CYC run out of its South Shore location?
The Rebecca Crown Center has been in the CYC family for 60 years. The youngest kids in our program there are 15, 16 months old, all the way to [our] really robust teen program for kids in high school. We have a fully operating makers lab there along with a big gym. So our kids there get to do a lot of athletic activities. We have a former NBA player who works with our kids in a basketball training camp. But we’ve also done choir, violin. We have a voyagers club that works there where kids get to experience the outdoors in slow increments, until [they get] the opportunity to actually do a week of a survival tour. So it’s really an opportunity to give kids who don’t typically have the access to these types of enrichment opportunities the chance to develop 21st century skills.
How has COVID-19 impacted your operations?
So immediately it shifts the way we think about programming. We have a stay-at-home order in place, we’re following the governor’s order. So our staff remains at home, working from home, and we have the types of jobs that are kind of difficult to do remotely. So how do you teach and run programming for kids remotely? So that’s really what we’re doing. We’re pivoting quickly to a digital platform. We’re partnering with board members, we have board members from Facebook who have provided some expertise from their side of the world. So we’re sort of coming together to really digitize educational platforms in this space, which is experiential learning space, so it’s different than a classroom environment.
Financially, we don’t know yet. I think the whole social service sector is being slightly forgotten about here. Just because coronavirus is here now, it doesn’t mean things like poverty and homelessness and neighborhood violence and food insecurity and housing insecurity go away, they just get exasperated. So now we have greater need, and the safety net, organizations like CYC that feel that need, are being financially squeezed. So a lot of uncertainty about how we continue to fill the needs of folks who need it most.
If you think about just how this is going affect us not just socially and medically but also financially, what does that financial implication have on people in areas of concentrated poverty? If you are already at the poverty line, and you’re barely making rent and barely keeping the lights on and barely keeping food on your table and now, your hours are cut or you’re not an essential worker or the small business that you work for can’t keep their doors open? And then the social service agency down the street that provides child care and meals and access to health care, access to mental health care, goes away because they can’t be supported — as difficult as it is for those who are losing, you know, 401(k) and stocks, and we all feel this level of uncertainty, the impact this is gonna have on the poor is going to be that second pandemic that we don’t talk about.
You mentioned you are transitioning some programs to digital, but that’s got to be a challenge because so much of what you do is in person, right?
Absolutely. And so much of what we do in the communities we serve is about relationship building, and developing long-term, trusting relationships with these young people and their families. And so that helps us in moments like this, because I think our kids and our families are more willing to engage with us in different ways. We’re calling every family, videoconferencing with families, sending videos to our kids. Our youth workers are really maintaining as much personal close contact as they can while abiding by these social distancing rules. But that can only be sustained for so long. You can’t do this work and not be in the room with each other.