By Erin Hiatt, Marketing & Communications Associate
Education is a process that involves much more than just gathering students and teachers together in a classroom to fulfill syllabus requirements or prepare for standardized tests. Before students can be in a knowledge-gathering mindset, some essential needs that many of us take for granted need to be met, like food on the table, a healthy mindset, and access to technology like tablets, laptops, and wifi.
Upon learning that NYC Public Schools were closing, members of New York Cares' education team immediately identified a challenge beyond the scope of our standard education programming: How can New York Cares support families through remote learning? Ruth Aybar (Associate Director of Community Engagement) and Caroline Leary (Community Engagement Associate) led the charge of supporting parents at our partner schools during a difficult time.
New York Cares' education programs create opportunities for volunteers to help their neighbors learn and succeed on their terms. Caroline and Ruth believed that a small pilot project, called Parent and Caregiver Engagement—the goal of which was to provide training and support for schools to engage parents as volunteers—would be an excellent proving ground in a new COVID-19 reality.
The top priority, however, was to make sure that families at their pilot schools had access to nutritious food, an important step to help families transition to virtual learning. "Ruth and I spent a lot of time researching and gathering information on food and food pantry access. Food access is the number one priority in terms of understanding where they could access it," Caroline said.
In addition to making sure that families had reliable food access, the team worked to collect and facilitate resources and training to help parents and volunteers address their well-being and that of their students during COVID-19. These resources included volunteer-led Google classrooms that teach parents and caregivers to navigate at-home learning, mindfulness practices like online yoga, and community gatherings in the form of virtual town halls.
Caroline said that surveys sent to parents and educators at pilot program schools showed mental health resources were at the top of the list as a much-needed resource. "So much of our programming is going toward the students. [But] what Ruth and I have been doing in community engagement is focusing on parents and caregivers," Leary said. "They're supporting the students, and they need support, too."
To meet that need, Caroline and Ruth put together two virtual town halls called "Parenting Through the Pandemic." They called upon one of New York Cares' founding members (and child psychologist), Dr. Paul Donahue, to facilitate them. Together with his colleague Dr. Eduvigis Cruz-Arrieta, they took on the task of trying to provide mental and emotional support and comfort to parents who are working and caring for their children in adverse circumstances.
Dr. Donahue said that leading the town halls was truly rewarding and enriching. "Seeing parents nod their heads and respond with enthusiasm to the message of hope and resilience gave me a tremendous feeling of gratitude, and a further appreciation for the ways communities can come together in a crisis."
Ruth and Caroline were happy to see the town hall bring people together, even if virtually. "There were a lot of heartfelt [reunions] and also staying connected on the school and parent end, some togetherness, saying, 'We're all going to get through this together,'" Ruth said.
There are many stories of community members who continue to show their dedication despite the challenges posed by the pandemic. "We talked with a parent coordinator who was diagnosed with COVID-19 but kept working, showing how dedicated people working in these schools are. They respond to the surveys and come to the town halls. It's a valuable experience to offer yourself as a resource to someone," Caroline added.
The end of the school year put the town halls on pause, but the pilot program—whose participants are proactive and eager to help each other get through the COVID-19 crisis —will continue through the summer. New York Cares dedicates ourselves to collaborating with our community partners to meet community needs and ensure that no New Yorker is left behind. Education programs will continue to work with communities to meet pressing community needs at over 1,000 nonprofit, school, and city agency locations across the five boroughs.