By Leslie Morris, Founder & CEO, Women of the Dream, Inc.
The coronavirus crisis is exacerbating the inequities for our children in underserved and poverty-stricken communities. The lack of digital access for learning and health resources are only the tip of the iceberg. The emotional and psychological impact on poor and low-income youth also needs attention. Those children have the added stress of missing meals and being worried about their parents’ anxiety over the loss of jobs and other resources. The economic impact, combined with social isolation and, for some, living in unsafe environments, can potentially decimate the lives of our most vulnerable youth in ways that are yet unknown. It may take years before we fully understand the emotional and psychological impact on these children.
Through this uncertain time, Women of the Dream continues to serve girls and young women, ages 12-18, in Camden, N.J. Our mission is to break the cycle of poverty by providing mentoring, life skills, college preparatory programs, an annual STEM conference and scholarships. When Camden’s schools closed March 18, WOD recognized the disruption this created in our girls’ lives. We are keeping them engaged with weekly Zoom meetings to share experiences and determine how we can help. Here are some challenges we are finding:
- Managing schoolwork is difficult. Unaccustomed to structuring their day and managing complex tasks without face-to-face interaction with teachers, the girls are overwhelmed, and in some cases, feel abandoned. This is not to imply that teachers are not doing their jobs. Most of our teachers have developed creative strategies to remain connected to their students.
- Many lack access to home-based technology. Of the 33 girls in our Life Skills Program, only three have computers and internet access at home. Most are attempting to do their schoolwork on their phones. And one in our college prep program doesn’t even have a phone and is falling so far behind that she is concerned she will not graduate next year. Fortunately, some relief is on the way. Under the leadership of Camden City School District Superintendent Katrina McCombs, funding has been procured to give laptops and tablets to all Camden students.
- Separation from friends and peers is taking a toll. This is the biggest source of frustration, anxiety and depression for our girls. Creating bonds with peers is an essential developmental task for adolescents, and school is where these relationships play out. Our young people no longer have the stimulation that is provided through daily contact with peers in school or through Women of the Dream. They tell us they are overeating, sleeping more than usual and feeling bored, isolated, angry and irritable, all symptoms that can place them at risk for mental health problems. We are only starting to see what the crisis might mean for young people’s mental health and emotional well-being. It’s a lot for our youth in underserved communities to process. While we don’t have all the answers, we do have some tips to help our youth through this crisis.
- Establish a daily routine. Structure makes them feel safe and provides a sense of purpose and control. They should awake at their regular school time, shower and dress daily, take a walk around the block, take breaks from schoolwork to refocus through meditation or prayer, and connect with friends and loved ones through social media. They should also spend time exercising, reading a book, writing in a journal, finding a creative outlet or working on academic goals.
- Provide accurate information about the virus. It’s important that our youth have factual information about COVID-19 and understand why they are being asked to stay at home and to use social distancing. For instance, they need to understand that African-Americans are contracting the disease and dying from it at an alarming rate, and that although older people are more likely to succumb to the virus, their social distancing will help keep others safe.
- Validate their disappointment. During our video sessions, we let them share their disappointment about losing important experiences such as proms, Women of the Dream activities, school trips and other events.
There is still much work to be done, and Women of the Dream wants to help. We are offering to collaborate with the Camden City School District to conduct surveys of students and parents or caretakers to measure the economic, social and psychological impact of this pandemic and to develop strategies to address it.
*Based in Camden NJ, Women of the Dream, Inc. provides programs and services that meet the needs and challenges of socially and economically disadvantaged girls, and prepares them to achieve their fullest potential, and lead purposeful, healthy lives. Learn more at www.womenofthedream.org.