Fred Rodgers said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
During the current global pandemic, there have been countless helpers both internationally and locally, and Iowa City’s United Action for Youth (UAY) is home to several of those helpers.
UAY is a non-profit organization that works with local youth — typically by means of out of school activities, counseling and support. But due to social distancing and self-quarantining, UAY had to evolve to a fully virtual platform to continue helping and connecting Johnson County youth and families.
The organization is continuing to offer all of its programs and services to local young people — counselling, transitional living, young parenting education — and they are also moving their art workshops to the Zoom group video chat platform as well.
“Each program had to have a conversation on how they needed to modify our services, how can they translate to an online platform,” UAY’s Development Director Mickey Hampton said. “Of course face to face visits are a preferred approach, but you know we’re not in normal times, and we have to adapt. That’s something we have been really good at, and I’m really proud of the way our staff has pivoted so quickly.”
The art workshops offered a unique challenge for the organization, due to many children not having the art supplies that would normally be brought to the weekly meeting, but through a private donor, Arts Program Coordinator Lauren Linahon said they were allowed to supply kids with a free art kit.
“We wanted our workshops to be barebones so that kids could participate. Not everyone has art supplies, hence the art kits” Linahon said. “So we wanted them to be really basic and really meaningful at the same time.”
These workshops can average upwards of 15 kids per class, said Hampton. UAY is also hosting virtual meetings for LGBTQ+ youth, music lessons for guitar and bass and a weekly Dungeons and Dragons game.
UAY is aware of how access to a video camera and internet can be hard for many that want to join, but the staff is more than willing to be flexible, said Hampton.
“If one platform doesn’t work or if a kid only has a short time of (internet) access a day and it doesn’t fall in a time that we are doing programming, then staff (can) connect with you other times also,” Hampton said.
With necessity being the mother of invention, UAY has found a silver lining in offering these programs virtually. Director of Programs, Ally Hanten said the virtual meetings have brought many new youth to the organization that may not have been able to participate previously.
“I think that having that social connection is really important, especially during times like this where there is a lot of uncertainty and the only thing that makes you feel normal is connection with other people,” Hanten said. “It’s really amazing that during this time, we have been able to generate some new contacts with young people.”
The move to virtual programs and services has opened a new door for UAY, said Hanten. Since implementing the new format of connecting with local youth, the organization may continue to use it once the pandemic is over.
“It’s something as an agency that we are willing to explore, and most of our funders have been long time funders for us, so they know our work and the integrity of our work. So I foresee it being an option.”
The new option for online has been received well by Avery Clark, a junior at Liberty High School, who has been a member of UAY since she was in 7th grade. Clark remarked on how members still interact in meaningful ways even during the non-preferred video meetings.
“It’s not really the same as going in person, but it’s gone over pretty well online, actually,” Clark said. “It’s really nice to see all the friends I’ve met there and to see that they’re still doing okay even though they are a little bit sad that they are being quarantined.”
This year is UAY’s 50th anniversary, and due to this pandemic, all of the organization’s celebrations had to be suspended for the time being, Hampton said. But there is not a better way of celebrating what this organization was founded for than by continuing to practice why it was founded during these unpresented and uncertain times.
“UAY is all about connecting with kids and making sure they have everything that they need,” Linahon said. “One of the biggest things we do at the Youth Center is connecting with kids: We build trust and relationships, so it wasn’t even a question we had to continue to build those relationships and the trust.”
Clark echoed the importance of these connections when she spoke about her years in UAY.
“One thing I really like is having adults in my life that are not my parents or teachers,” Clark said. “[UAY’s Staff] are really good at supporting all of the youth and they have helped me get through some really difficult times. It’s really nice that they know who I am and know what I’ve been through, and they are still supporting me.”