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Youth-development organizations had to recreate their program models to continue serving youth and families. This story explores the costs of quality through the lens of three organizations. We know there are many more stories about the costs from COVID and the creative ways youth-development organizations are maintaining and expanding their quality programs. Let us know when you’re ready to grab the mic to tell yours!

Above: Create Your Dreams created outdoor and small-group learning pods this school year to serve Atlanta Public Schools students like this third grader in CYD’s outdoor learning pod.
Photo courtesy of Create Your Dreams

The Cost of Quality: Atlanta youth organizations cope with new costs of operating during COVID-19

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Create Your Dreams Creates Learning Pods 

After seeing a slew of social media posts of parents expressing their frustrations with online learning, the executive director of Create Your Dreams wanted to find a better way to support its kids and families. Like many organizations, Atlanta-based Create Your Dreams (CYD) switched over to virtual programming with the city’s shelter-in-place orders. 

But staff were also experiencing difficulties with connecting to students online during the summer of virtual programming. And “a lot of parents and students were frustrated with virtual learning,” said Peter Otim, CYD’s program director. “We realized a lot of our parents would not be able to sit with their kids during online school and needed us to supervise and offer a space.” 

So in the new school year, Create Your Dreams flipped its model and swapped its after-school and weekend programming for supporting APS students throughout the school day. Students now meet at the organization’s King Plow Arts Center location in learning pods, which allows staff to answer questions and provide support. 

“A lot of our program is personal growth, and we do a lot of hands-on learning that just cannot happen virtually,” Otim said. “Those relationships are really hard to build online. We just knew that virtual programming would not be a viable option for us long term.” For example, there were times Create Your Dreams tried to do activities like teaching origami. “You don’t realize how difficult it is to teach 4th graders how to fold paper over virtual learning. There was also the issue of unreliable internet connections both on our side and kids’ side, so it caused a lot of confusion.” 

Create Your Dreams was able to expand their services, partially due to a community member letting the program use their space to host students. CYD students are spread across three different sites, with no more than eight or nine kids per each. Create Your Dreams provides face masks and hand sanitizer when needed, and created a partnership with an emergency food program, Otim said. 

 “Through the leadership of our executive director, we’ve built what feels like a safe environment,” Otim said. “Everyone is required to wear masks. The kids have been incredible with abiding by all of our rules and cleaning up after themselves.” 

“So far, so good,” Otim said. 

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Nearly 100 youth from across the country participated in Usher’s New Look’s “I Can’t But You Can” voter mobilization campaign kick-off event this fall, learning about how to leverage their collective power to impact elections, even if they are not of voting age. Photo courtesy of Usher’s New Look

Usher’s New Look Goes Online 

CYD was fortunate enough to have a space donation, but what about those who haven’t had the same opportunities? While some organizations have seen difficulties in switching to virtual, others, like the Usher’s New Look, had relative success. 

Before COVID-19 even came on the scene, the team at Usher’s New Look considered expanding the organization’s reach by acquiring more office space and integrating virtual content in its infrastructure. “The theory behind going virtual was to expand services but stay lean as an organization,” said Geoff Streat, Usher’s New Look chief operating officer. “The thinking was ‘how can we share more of what we’re doing with more people without losing the quality?'” 

Virtual programming allows the organization to do more with a small staff. “If we were to expand in a physical space, it’d require more manpower and new team members,” Streat said. “Now we can leverage Zoom and other technologies to hold larger meetings but still kind of have the same feel. We can record sessions, content, and share it with multiple groups so that the message can get shared on a broader scale.”

Although virtual potentially negates the need for an office expansion, social distancing does not. 

After the shelter-in-place orders, the organization had to consider its future and what to do on the other side of quarantine. Should it expand office space, even more so to maintain social distancing measures, or should it continue with remote programming? Last summer the organization postponed physical expansion for two reasons.

The first reason is health. “The mayor’s order to shelter-in-place was definitely important,” Streat said. “We wanted to be compliant and make sure we were being responsible citizens beyond just work. Work is important, but it’s not everything. It’s stressful enough to know the pandemic exists and that it’s affecting families. We don’t want to add to the stress by making people think they have to jeopardize their health to work in an office.” 

Second, money factored in the decision to postpone office space expansion. “Trying to maintain current funding in this climate has been a stretch,” Streat said. “Not being able to do fundraisers like you’ve been accustomed to has some implications. We want to be conservative, fully conscious of what expenses we’re talking on, and use our dollars to directly impact the young people and our families.”

“Virtual programming can be challenging for families if you don’t have the resources at your disposal – the high-speed internet or multiple devices to compensate for the needs in your household,” Streat said. “Organizationally, virtual has been less costly for us because we were already set up to do that. We had the capability to do virtual meetings before COVID. For other people, it could be very expensive to figure out how to set up a virtual platform and train your people to be able to execute their duties through this virtual platform.” 

At Usher’s New Look, the success of virtual programming is due to its staff, said Streat. The relationship between staff and students is what maintains high engagement on the virtual platforms, he said. “Everyone is really passionate about working with young people. It’s passion work. It’s tough work, and it can be taxing at times. We operate as a family in terms of checking in with each other mentally and physically. We have a lot of dialogue about what’s going on in life and what we can do in terms of being the best we can be.” 

 Usher’s New Look pours into its staff through investing in professional development, mental health programming, health care plans, and more. 

 The organization also continues to invest dollars in students through its programming and partnerships*. For example, Usher’s New Look hosted virtual paint and sips by shipping kits to staff and students and unclogging together over Zoom. Contractors deliver content to students and still uphold a per-student charge. Usher’s New Look has also used grant funding to offer emergency relief to families to address insecurities such as food, shelter, and utilities. It’s also used grants to help college students in need of tuition or living aid. 

*UNL is also a VOX ATL program partner.

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Training and fundraising had to look different this year for L.E.A.D. Ambassadors like Quavious (hitter) and Thomas (catcher), but the organization was determined to keep their student-athletes safely engaged. The annual Champions Draft Baseball Game (above) raised funds to support the purchase of more equipment to increase the number of practice stations and provide for distancing in small groups. Photo credit: India Albritton

L.E.A.D. – ‘Blessed in the middle of the pandemic’

Kelli Stewart, co-founder and executive director of L.E.A.D., Inc., says one of the blessings of COVID is the urgency behind making sure we have our own space … our first home – the L.E.A.D. Center for Youth in West End.” 

For 10 years, the sports-based youth development organization called Washington High School “home base,” according to the organization’s website, but when Atlanta Public Schools shut down last March, partners were no longer allowed on campus, either. And the program, which is “inspiring and equipping Black males with the empowerment they need to live sustainable lives of significance” had to pause along with everyone else. 

But, by summer, students were burned out on virtual programming. “School was their main outlet [for] socialization, and to lose that has really just hurt them from a social standpoint,” said Stewart. “So – we decided we were going to take the risk — because it is a risk to offer direct programming – and [we] gave our parents and ambassadors the chance to opt out — 100% opted in.”

“We are offering direct programming – at a higher cost.” 

In addition to leasing the new facility, additional costs include nightly cleanings, touchless hand sanitizers, and masks dispenses throughout the building, “anything we could do that didn’t break the bank,” said Stewart. 

“With the help of Kroger, we also put in an industrial-sized refrigerator. Our families are still feeling the brunt of the pandemic of: crime, poverty and racism. Then the medical pandemic comes. They were barely making ends meet anyway. …Food insecurity is at an all-time high rate for our families.” 

L.E.A.D. began “partnering with local chefs to bring in quality chef-prepared meals, so when our boys finish [at the after-school program], they can just go in the fridge and get what they need for their families,” Stewart said.

“Our boys feel they aren’t being given anything, they’re earning it, because one of the ways they maintain their commitment is attendance. If you’re here, that’s currency. And if you’re here, that entitles you to bring those resources to their families.” 

This winter, L.E.A.D.’s 30 Ambassadors have been participating in winter workouts, which includes baseball training and performance (strength & agility) training. Stewart said “those who are performing at higher levels at school and have a higher rate of attendance in L.E.A.D. get to spend one-on-one time with CJ, co-founder and CEO [and Stewart’s husband], and take part in our mentorship / leadership course called Handle your Business, [which includes] relationship management, media training, social media training.” 

To further engage the Ambassadors this year, L.E.A.D. has also been providing a new curricula called Know Your Truth, co-created by Stewart’s daughter, Mackenzi, 19, who is also a student athlete at an HBCU. “Know Your Truth is a culturally relevant course focusing on all the things they should be taught in school but aren’t,” like the history of policing in America and housing discrimination in Atlanta,” said Stewart. “Those courses are meant to help them deal with this stamp of poverty that has been put on them. Poverty carries a sense of shame and embarrassment. We’re teaching them that [embarrassment] is not theirs, it’s society’s. We are helping them understand how we all got to be where we are today.” 

“Most people try to dismiss us, [saying] ‘you’re just a baseball team’. But sport is so much more valuable than that. Sport for a lot of youth legitimizes education. People don’t want to hear that, but every child is not walking around trying to be a Rhodes scholar. Some children need something to make education make sense for them.” 

Success is relative,” Stewart continued, “within our organization and in the discipline of positive youth development. The shared power that exists in our organization is: I’m not going to tell you college is the end all be all. I have to ask you that. It’’s my job as your coach and your mentor to connect you with the right people to make that happen.”

Ambassadors complete a survey, sharing ideas about dream jobs, what changes they want to see in the world, and other aspirations, and they meet with Kelli or CJ Stewart to determine ane effective coaching path for each individual. L.E.A.D is also working with a funder “to get access to strengths assessments so they can learn more about themselves and their potential career path,” Kelli Stewart said. 


This story was reported and written by Darriea Clark, VOX ATL alumna and 2020 Special Projects Editor and VOX ATL alumna.

Additional reporting provided by VOX ATL staff. 

These stories are part of VOX ATL’s adult-written “Guide on the Side” stories series about high-quality youth development. This series was originally commissioned and supported by the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta.  

To share your organization’s story with VOX ATL, please email editor@voxatl.org.

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