Published December 07, 2020 14:18
When the COVID-19 pandemic forced Boys and Girls Clubs of Winnipeg (BGCW) to shut down its in-person programming, the agency got creative.
For more than 40 years, Boys and Girls Clubs of Winnipeg has served children and youth, ages 6-18. Each year the agency offers free before- and after-school programs for 3,700+ kids at 12 community-based clubs, which run in parts of the city where services are needed most.
When COVID-19 hit Winnipeg, the agency had to do some quick thinking.
“Back in the spring, when we found out how serious this was and that that school wasn’t likely to reopen anytime soon, we then realized, how are we, in this environment, going to keep in contact with the kids who come to our clubs?” said Ron Brown, President and CEO of the agency. “Because that interpersonal connection is what makes us good at what we do.”
Once school was shut down, Ron said they realized food was going to be a problem since eight of the 12 clubs are located in schools.
“We also realized if we were going to have to shift to online programming, how do you do that if kids can’t connect?” Ron said. “If kids don’t have internet at home, and even if they do, there might be only one device in the family? How are kids going to stay connected to the outside world?”
Ron said the first thing BGCW did was to take some of their existing resources from programs where they knew they wouldn’t be able to deliver, given the situation. They redeployed these resources, so they could make food their number one priority.
“We started putting together food hampers,” said Ron. “We identified about 80 families that we knew were going to have food security issues.”
Ron said they offered hampers until mid-July and also partnered with the Winnipeg School Division, which also had a program to deliver hampers to families in need.
“We volunteered to help them out with their delivery system,” said Ron. “We had vans, and we had staff.”
Another challenge for the agency was how they would offer their Community School Investigators (CSI) Summer Learning Program.
“That’s a huge program for us, five weeks of summer school for kids, grades one to six,” said Ron. “Normally, there would be 1,000 students who would sign up, and we would hire 200 staff to help run the program.”
Ron said they were able to offer the program to approximately half the cohort – about 500 students.
“Food was a big part of the program, too,” said Ron. “We were doing that twice a day. Either breakfast and lunch for kids coming in the morning, or lunch and a take-home for the kids who came in the afternoon.”
As September approached, Ron said they were hoping they could get back into the schools; understandably, however, just being open was enough of a challenge for schools.
To ensure that kids could still participate in in-person programs, BGCW found a clever workaround.
“For the first time in our organization’s history, we rented some programming space close to the schools we were already in,” said Ron.
In-person programming ended when the Province declared a Code Red in Manitoba.
Not to be deterred, BGCW found another workaround.
“We were much more prepared this time [since the spring],” said Ron. “We went into virtual programming, which we’re doing 100% across the board. Our staff are safe, and our kids are safe. It’s not as good as in person, but it’s at least it keeps the connection alive.”
One of the workarounds to offer programming was to purchase approximately 100 Chromebooks.
“For kids who didn’t have the technology, now they do, and they can connect with us, with each other, and if they’re doing online schooling, they can connect with school.”
Ron said that even though the pandemic prompted this virtual programming, the agency will always continue to offer an online component.
“Virtual programming has a purpose and expands our reach and will continue to do that no matter how normal it becomes after this is over,” Ron said.
A virtual cooking club is another example of innovation and resourcefulness the agency put in place.
“We’d put together ingredients for a meal and then drop everything off – all pre-arranged – at participants’ homes,” said Ron. “And then, at the appointed time, everybody got on Zoom, and they’d cook the meal together.”
Ron said they were pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t just participants who would join the club, but the whole family.
“They made the meal together, and then everybody would eat together,” said Ron. “We’re hoping to do more with the food budgets we have, especially during the winter months. We’re so grateful for the support we receive so that we can keep these programs in place for our city’s kids.”