May 11, 2020

“We’ve never seen anything like this,” says James Holley, Columbia Park Clubhouse Director and 17-year BGCSF veteran, as he opens up the building. Now into the seventh week since the shelter-in-place order came into effect in the Bay Area, our Columbia Park Clubhouse on the Mission-Dolores side of the Mission District has kept its doors open every weekday to serve the community as an essential service. Over those seven weeks, for James and our Clubhouse staff, the story is one of adapting amid uncertainty and overcoming challenges to continue to serve San Francisco youth and families.

While BGCSF has weathered other storms in recent years – from the impact of 9/11 to the fallout of the 2008-09 financial crisis and the impact of wildfires on air quality – COVID-19 has unleashed unprecedented challenges across our organization and change the very nature of what “responding” looks like. In the immediate wake of the outbreak, Clubhouses and staff adjusted to the new situation. Touching on the early days of this new reality, James commented, “Nobody knew what to expect. We’ve never led through a pandemic.”

As workers across the city transitioned to work from home, many of our Clubhouse staff doubled down, showing up every day to support vulnerable youth and children of essential workers – youth who needed both a physical space and a support system as an uncertain time unfolded. Currently, four of BGCSF’s 13 sites are open to youth and a fifth is a food distribution site. We are determined to be an essential business in San Francisco per the City’s public health order. Three of our sites are offering programs for five hours per day, and the Columbia Park Clubhouse is open for extended hours (13 hours) to be available for the children of hospital workers, emergency services workers, and other essential workers. Additionally, we are leading or supporting food distribution efforts in four neighborhoods — Visitacion Valley, Western Addition, Excelsior, and Sunnydale — connecting youth and families to over 2,600 meals each week. That number will grow to almost 3,500 meals this week. 

Passing by the Columbia Park Clubhouse gym, where the ping pong table has one side folded up for solo play, James comments, “The activity that has caught my eye the most is kids playing sports in the gym and out on the playfield with their gloves on! We’re lucky the spaces are big enough to respect social distancing, but it’s different seeing the gloves!”  This is just one of a number of ways that life in the Clubs has adapted.

Each morning, James meets with the Columbia Park team as they plan for the day and assign roles, taking into account new safety measures implemented in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Staff wear masks (many made and donated by BGCSF’s generous network of volunteers and supporters) and put on gloves. All staff and youth have their temperatures taken on arrival and practice physical distancing – keeping 6ft apart – throughout the day. The changes have obviously not gone unnoticed. “Kids understand the importance of washing their hands,” James says, nodding. “I do know that the kids we talk to everyday understand COVID, understand social distancing, understand terms they may not have even heard of 10 weeks ago. But kids are still kids: they want to have fun, to be taken care of – that’s what they come to the Club for.”

Knowing this, James has an intense focus on making activities as fun as possible, even within new parameters. He describes an ‘a-ha’ moment when staff introduced Bingo – a perfect, interactive activity enjoyed from a distance! At separate tables, kids paint pictures and braid lanyards. Staff continue to offer tutoring and academic support while maintaining a safe distance. Relationships continue to be the cornerstone of Club life.

With schools closed and opportunities to share childcare with families and friends curtailed, James says the Clubs have become an even more important option for parents to lean on. “We are a community resource. We have a mom who works in the Tenderloin; she doesn’t have transportation and, because of the changes to bus services, she walks 45 minutes from Jones St. to Guerrero. We know she needs us, and every time she picks up her child, she is thankful.” And the wider community has shown its gratitude to the Club, too. Parents have dropped off food to say ‘thank you’, and Clubs have received messages of support and encouragement.

In addition to in-Club programming, Columbia Park has virtual programming to serve youth at home. James has seen staff take to this new mission and build programs from scratch: from art classes to cooking classes – all streaming through Google Classroom (stay tuned for our upcoming story on BGCSF’s Virtual Clubhouse!). Sean Hyatt, Columbia Park’s Education Director, has developed new online school programs within a very compressed timeframe to respond to the needs of youth who continue to rely on the Club. But, as ever, there are challenges. James recognizes the real challenge of the digital divide – the gap in access to and know-how of modern technology – which particularly affects low income communities, and that’s why he is motivated. “We want to be sure that we are on top of it, and the kids know we are ready to support them.”

In the evening, after a full day of programming, staff finish up online classes, wave goodbye to kids leaving the Clubhouse, and wipe down tables and high-touch areas for the last time. While the COVID-19 pandemic is unlike anything we have experienced in our lifetimes, seeing the Club in action – both online and onsite – during this crisis, it is clear that in the important ways, as James says proudly, “Nothing’s changed. We’re still here; standing shoulder-to-shoulder with kids and families.”

For more information on how BGCSF is supporting youth and families during this time, including in-Clubhouse offerings as an essential business and virtual programming, please visit kidsclub.org/updates. For more great stories from BGCSF, check out our blog!

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