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Strengthening our youth organizations at a pivotal moment | COMMENTARY

Sherwood Forest community youth camp special projects leader William Moulden shows campers what crops are ready for picking. Kids from the Sherwood Forest community youth camp came to the Severn Chapel Farm in Millersville to pick produce to be donated to the Anne Arundel County Food Bank.
Sherwood Forest community youth camp special projects leader William Moulden shows campers what crops are ready for picking. Kids from the Sherwood Forest community youth camp came to the Severn Chapel Farm in Millersville to pick produce to be donated to the Anne Arundel County Food Bank. (Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette)

From local YMCA affiliates offering teen sports and academic programs to Boys & Girls Club of America providing a safe after school destination, youth-serving organizations are community anchors. If we let the reach of these and other organizations that serve young people diminish, there will be a ripple effect of crises in areas from health to education down the road.

These organizations play a crucial role that has only grown during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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With the challenging transition to online and hybrid public education, these organizations are needed to help students access computers and internet connections, address the academic achievement gap and provide meals, counseling and essential services. Many organizations have already pivoted to play this expanded role without substantial public or private investment.

In addition, we rely on our youth-serving organizations to foster diversity and tolerance through programs that focus on mentorships and youth employment. At YMCAs, Boys & Girls Clubs and other youth organizations, staff are at the front line having deep and impactful conversations about police brutality and racism with our young citizens.

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With talk about reducing police funding and redirecting money to community services, our youth-serving organizations could soon find themselves taking on even more new opportunities and challenges. This is a moment when the dramatic expansion of recreational services, youth counseling and job training can become a reality.

There are four ways we can make sure these organizations grow and don’t disappear when our communities need them the most:

  1. We need immediate action by Congress to incorporate proposals such as the Save Organizations that Serve America Act. Co-sponsored by Representatives Seth Moulton (D-MA) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), This type of investment will create an emergency lifeline to these essential organizations. Too many institutions are burning through limited operating reserves and lines of credit. Employees have been furloughed or laid off on a massive scale.
  2. There is a unique opportunity for private investment in youth-serving organizations that is already evolving. As foundation and corporate giving pivots to meet the needs of our current health crisis, these organizations should be a key focus of funding. In particular, starting with low income communities disproportionately impacted by the health and economic impact of COVID-19.
  3. Youth-serving organizations will need the support in areas from reconfiguring space to address social distancing needs to developing a robust online presence to provide virtual services. This effort should be done in concert with local schools to provide opportunities for virtual after school care when needed.
  4. This health crisis provides the opportunity for the re-imagination of the physical spaces that serve young people. Organizations have the chance to bring services under one roof instead of young people having to go to multiple locations for academic, mental health and job training. There are great models of how this can be done, such as the nonprofit Strong City Baltimore, and we need to look at how to bring this to scale. Nonprofit boards need to take a hard look at salary practices going forward to both retain talent and better support front line staff who are working directly with young people, the equivalent of essential workers. This is the moment where we celebrate our counselors, instructors and other staff who work directly with young people. Boards need to take a look at the metric of executive compensation in relation to the pay of front line staff, and ensure that fair standards are in place. For government entities that fund youth-serving organizations, from the federal government to states and localities, there needs to be a rethink of the reporting requirements attached to funding. Arduous and unneeded reporting adds a huge burden to many organizations and impacts cash flow. Time spent filling out unread reports to funders is time taken away from service to young people.

In a world with profound choices about allocation of public and private investments going forward, there are many challenging trade-offs that lie ahead. In the case of youth-serving organizations there is no ambiguity; swift action is needed to ensure that these community anchors remain intact to encourage diversity and understanding.

Sean Andrews (seancandrews@gmail.com) has been a YMCA executive and national staff member at the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. He lives in Towson.

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