Students at SONYC 185 receive back-to-school supplies and support.
“You are so much taller!” was the phrase most often heard at the Lights on Afterschool grab-and-go event at J.H.S. 185 in Flushing, Queens, in October. The other one was, “Thank you.”
The event, during which staff distributed supply-filled backpacks that were funded by donations from Child Center supporters through our annual backpack drive, was just one of many ways The Child Center has been there for students and their families during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As the pandemic reached NYC, The Child Center’s 26 afterschool enrichment programs pivoted rapidly to be there for students. Staff partnered with the NYC Department of Education to distribute remote learning technology and make sure low-income students had internet access so they wouldn’t fall behind. Then and now, we are continuing to help students with schoolwork, ensuring they understand concepts and complete their assignments on schedule.
Staff also committed to helping families in other ways that meet the times. For example, many Child Center programs, including SONYC 185, organized food pantries, which have been a huge help to families who may have lost jobs and are struggling more than usual to make ends meet.
Through the backpack drive, The Child Center distributed 3,500 supply-filled backpacks to children across our programs.
“We are continuously trying to offer resources to participants and the community within our reach and budget,” says SONYC 185 Director Mehak Mahmood. “In addition to providing participants with social, emotional, academic, and recreational support, we had to incorporate COVID safety and technology to properly support our families. The backpack drive was a game changer because it alleviated a lot of the cost burden for our families and provided a little bit of everything in one compact backpack.”
The backpacks arrived full of traditional school supplies, such as binders, loose-leaf paper, and pencil cases, as well as PPE, including cloth face coverings and hand sanitizer. Staff added other items, such as snacks, additional PPE, and a fidget gadget for a personal touch.
Until schools closed on November 19, SONYC 185 had been operating on a mixed schedule, with the majority of students participating remotely, some in-person, and some hybrid — whatever worked best for individual families. This means that the grab-and-go event was the first opportunity to meet some of the students in person, either for the first time ever (in the case of sixth graders and others who are new to the program and joined virtually), or, for returning students who are participating virtually, for the first time since the program hosted an end-of-school-year grab-and-go last June.
One of those students is seventh-grader Nicholas (pictured above), who virtually attends SONYC 185 every day while his mom works.
“The virtual afterschool program has kept Nicholas off of video games and kept him active in thinking critically online,” Nicholas’ mom, Monica, reports. “He especially enjoys the cooking class. He’s always interested in trying the different dishes and asks me to get as many of the ingredients as possible the day before so he’s ready!”
Monica is one of many parents who lost her job due to the pandemic. She recently was rehired and reports that the food pantry and backpacks for her four school-age children were a great help to the family while they get back on their feet.
“A lot of families won’t come out and say ‘we need help,'” Mahmood says, “but the amount of parents who have used the food pantry and signed up to receive a backpack — and how quickly — shows that the need is there.”
While SONYC 185 staff are committed to providing this kind of assistance, they never lose sight of their primary mandate: to engage students in innovative ways and keep them excited about learning. Classes offered at SONYC 185 this year include upcycling, creative writing, fitness, DIY, movies, and “chat and chew” (an opportunity for participants to connect and get schoolwork help while enjoying a snack).
“It has been a different yet successful turn of events through the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Mahmood. “All these efforts help students stay on track and continue to feel confident about school and their own abilities. Participants have been showing up to virtual programming on a steady basis.”
“This pandemic has caused so much pain and taken so much away from our children,” Mahmood adds. “But when I see the smiles — either on screen or in person — I realize that we can still bring joy and happiness into their lives. The pandemic can’t take everything. We still can make a difference.”
Editor’s Note: While our backpack drive for the year has ended, you still can make a difference for a family in need by making a year-end donation to support our programs, or donating to our holiday toy drive, through which 100% of donations go toward purchasing a gift for a child who might otherwise not have one this year.