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As COVID persists, New York's youth need nonprofits now more than ever

October 22, 2021

Boys_and_girls_town_nycThis was not the "return-to-normal" back-to-school season many of us had hoped for. Remote learning and isolation for more than a year have left many students, especially the most vulnerable, behind. On average, K-12 students are now an estimated five months behind in math and four months behind in reading. And there is a mental health crisis among teenagers hit hard by loneliness. While schools, families, and government agencies continue to provide substantial support for youth, it is simply not enough. Nonprofits are playing a vital role in supporting our youth through this pandemic and its fallout.

As executive director of A Chance In Life, a New York City-based nonprofit that supports at-risk teens through positive youth development, I've seen how essential such organizations have been over the past eighteen months. We operate all over the world and recently opened a center for youth on Staten Island, our first U.S. program. The demand for our services, which include paid internships, food distributions, and afterschool programs, has been high.

As schools, government agencies, and the private sector come together to improve the lives of youth and their families, nonprofits must have a seat at the table. They can help mitigate COVID-related learning loss, provide supportive social reintegration settings, and use their local connections to provide support where other entities fall short.

The negative repercussions of the pandemic on youth and their education are staggering. The effects are even more pronounced for Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students and those from high-poverty districts. Educators are doing everything they can, and I am deeply thankful for their work. But volatile conditions and insufficient funding have put them in an impossible position. Moreover, budget and time constraints limit teaching to core subjects, leaving little room for the additional support many students need.

Nonprofits are perfectly positioned to provide extra support to supplement students' classroom education with free tutoring, afterschool enrichment programs, and distribution of school supplies. They can also broaden students' education to include topics that don't always make it into school curricula, like financial literacy education.

Just as essential are the spaces for social development nonprofits provide — away from the pressures of exams and grades. Teens have been particularly negatively impacted by the social isolation of COVID-19, with 61 percent of young adults surveyed in a recent study reporting feeling lonely. Detachment puts young people at risk for mental health issues including anxiety, depression, and substance abuse.

Nonprofits offer safe, enriching spaces that foster peer-to-peer connections. Whether it is for group tutoring, an internship or a music lesson, it is important to carve out room for teens to be themselves and form bonds away from outside stressors.

In addition, the close community ties many nonprofits forge through their work help them recognize problems sooner. And they can respond with solutions more efficiently because they're less constrained by red tape than government agencies.

As COVID-related budget cuts stretched social services to their limits, nonprofits have been stepping up. A Chance In Life chose Staten Island as the site of our first U.S. program in part because it had fewer social programs than other New York City boroughs. Nonprofits across the country have done the same by setting up shop in neighborhoods that have been most neglected — whether the problem is a lack of public transportation, crowded schools, or food deserts.

For-profit businesses that care about giving back should also work with nonprofits to achieve a meaningful and sustainable impact — for nonprofits are the link to the community. Community-based organizations, their leaders, and staff have built local relationships and know where resources are needed. Nonprofits use their trusted voices to let residents know how to access donations from businesses. They also know where to go in a community to reach the people who need those resources the most.

For example, this past August, we partnered with another community-based organization, Staten Island Community Partnership, and ShopRite to distribute food donated by the supermarket chain. Without the corporate donation, we would have had no food to share with our neighbors, but without our connections with local residents and physical presence in the borough, ShopRite would not have known where to distribute that food.

We may not yet have returned to "normal." But nonprofits are willing, ready, and able to ensure that the nation's youth are supported, no matter the state of the city. I urge those in influential positions — leaders in government, business, and philanthropy — to actively support and include nonprofits as we all work towards solutions to this crisis.

(Photo credit: Boys' and Girls' Town of New York City)

Headshot_Gabriele_Delmonaco_PhilanTopicGabriele Delmonaco is executive director of A Chance In Life, a nonprofit dedicated to providing shelter, education, and development for at-risk youth.

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