COVID-19 poses major challenges for Detroit organizations serving youth, but the mission continues

For many, the outbreak of COVID-19 in Michigan has meant a drastic change in their everyday life, from avid grocery shopping, job loss, and the new normal of social distancing. For the Boys & Girls Clubs of Southeastern Michigan (BGCSM) and many organizations in Metro Detroit, it's meant getting up every morning to answer the charge to continue support of the youth and families they serve — outside of their normal operations.

BGCSM’s Tiffany Sulsa, along with her staff members, take a 7:30 a.m. bus ride to deliver meals and educational packets to families who need them most throughout Metro Detroit. Sulsa is the co-director of Richard and Patricia Dohaney Boys and Girls Club in Belleville, and for the last week or so, she and the BGCSM team have been working on food delivery efforts, which involve dropping off food packages to kids enrolled in the Romulus Community Schools district.

"It’s a big change. We miss seeing the kids," she says. "We miss being in our everyday routine, but having a chance to help them and give back to the community and help the school districts that we're part of is a great feeling."

So far, BGCSM employees have distributed more than 1,300 meals to families in need across Southeast Michigan.

The food delivery initiative is one way BGCSM — as well as other nonprofits in the region — are trying to continue their efforts to move the needle in supporting the most vulnerable residents in the wake of the coronavirus. It’s also forced them to rethink how they serve and explore how the impact could potentially derail those efforts.

Last week, the Labor Department reported jobless claims soared 30%, and BGCSM parents were already facing an unemployment rate triple (12.4%) that of the national average (3.5%) as of March 11, according to the organization.

"What we figured out connecting with the community is that if we want to truly help our youth then we have to address the core root of the problem many of them are facing, which is poverty," says BGCSM President & CEO Shawn Wilson.
BGCSM President & CEO Shawn Wilson

To meet the need, local organizations have been shifting their work and accelerating their efforts in response to the crisis. However, the increased demand for services also means increased demand for funding, which is likely to overwhelm already strapped organizations, and financial support from partners will be crucial in serving the most vulnerable.

Rough times for nonprofits 

Like BGCSM, Detroit PAL, which combines youth sports and other activities with mentorship and support from the city’s local police force, recently moved beyond its traditional focus on character building and adopted a new more holistic framework of youth development, known as the G.R.E.A.T. Model.

As with the Boys and Girls Clubs, though, it's suddenly found itself unable to carry out the work it's best known for doing, while at the same time being deprived of traditional revenue sources. 

CEO Robert Jamerson, who prior to working with Detroit PAL had worked in a corporate position with Pfizer pharmaceutical company, found himself in the heartbreaking position of having shut down parts of his organization and lay off employees who didn't have skillsets that could be temporarily repurposed. Unlike a corporate environment, Jamerson says nonprofits typically run at full capacity and depend on cash reserves that are dependent on grants and fundraising.

Detroit PAL, which operates The Corner Ballpark at Michigan and Trumbull in Detroit, is heavily reliant on April and May event revenues. It also took a big hit from the cancellation of the annual Corktown St. Patrick's Day Parade. What's more, the closing of public schools has deeply affected its ability to fund programming through school sports registrations. The combination of these factors has put the youth service organization in a deeply precarious position. As things now stand, the nonprofit is now looking for assistance to help pay its staff's wages and benefits and cover utilities.

“The challenge with the coronavirus is it hits a few things all at once," says Jamerson. "We can't wait to be rescued. We have to stay alive long enough to be rescued, so at this time we’re functioning as a skeleton group."

In the face of these obstacles, however, Detroit PAL has refocused its efforts on education.  Making use of its unique relationship with local youth, it’s reaching out to let families know about the coronavirus and how to get assistance with important resources like free Wi-Fi and connecting them with psychologists who can help them cope with mental health issues. The nonprofit is also working with Dan Gilbert's Rock Family of Businesses to repurpose its ballpark, which has convenient access to several local freeways, into a community resource that federal state and local authorities could make use of during the COVID-19 crisis.

"There's a lot of moving parts right now," says Jamerson, “but we're doing the best we can to be what the community needs as well as support our teams.”

Difficult decisions

In an effort to shore up at least a little of the crisis facing area youth, the Skillman Foundation is doing its best to use its resources effectively. Founded in 1960, the private philanthropic institution is dedicated to serving Detroit youth by supporting K-12 public education, after-school programs and college and career pathways. In the face of so much individual and community need, the foundation has been adopting a proactive stance.

“Our strength as individuals, organizations, and communities will be defined by how we come together, right now, with a singular mission: sustaining life — and quality of life. That means rallying behind the nonprofits that are on the ground filling immediate needs," says Tonya Allen, Skillman Foundation’s president and chief executive officer.

To this end, Skillman has contributed half a million dollars as an initial funder to the United Way for Southeastern Michigan’s Community Response Fund. The fund is a joint effort by United Way and its partners to assist families struggling with the COVID-19 crisis by providing food, shelter to the homeless, shoring up operational funding gaps for health and human services providers, offering loss of income and other support for vulnerable populations, and supporting college students faced with barriers to completing their education.

Looking past the immediate crisis, Skillman is also focused on coming to terms with how the current health crisis is highlighting existing educational barriers that Detroit youth face — and the opportunity to come back stronger from social and economic disruption.

"We have to recognize this moment as an opportunity to address the equity gaps that have been made all the clearer by the COVID-19 pandemic," says Allen. "In particular, we have to enact policies that ensure every child has access to the technology and tools they need to succeed. This isn’t the first-time schools have closed due to an emergency and it won’t be the last. We need to make sure we come out of this stronger than we started.”

Tonya Allen, Skillman Foundation’s president and chief executive officer

Reimagining during a crisis

BGCSM provides youth development programs for children ages 6-18 with a focus "to provide a world-class experience, empowering youth to reach their full potential as change agents for their life, Club, and communities," Wilson says. The BGCSM Reimagining Initiative sought to shift the way after-school programming looks and shift its resources based on the new needs of the youth today. But amid the pandemic, BGCSM has had to again, “reimagine” its role due to the impact of COVID-19 and accelerate its overall strategy, including renovating clubs to support vocational training and entrepreneurial incubation for adults and youths; keep after-school programs and coworking affordable, and pilot a virtual club model for youths and adults to increase participation.

Keeping coworking affordable is part of BGCSM's strategy to “reimagine” its role due to the impact of COVID-19.

The change in direction comes out of a desire from BGCSM to assist its communities in a time of need and maintain connections with their youth, and in the process not lose any of its part-time or full-time staff. This redeployment, however, definitely faces challenges.

Of its $7 million annual budget, $1.5 million is funded by events that have been canceled as a result of the pandemic. On top of that, the nonprofit also faces a funding environment where charitable foundations are almost certain to be overwhelmed. And that spells nothing but uncertainty for groups like BGCSM.

"You look at other natural disasters, [emergency responders] are used to a natural disaster happening in one place like Florida or California. This is happening all over the country and will go on for months," says Wilson. "We're still in the eye of the storm."

At 94 years old, BGCSM is one of the oldest charitable organizations in Metro Detroit focused on serving youth. A local chapter of the Boys and Girls Club of America, BGCSM serves 15,000 youth throughout Southeast Michigan and operates eight Metro Detroit clubs.

The nonprofit was already in the midst of a major re-envisioning earlier this month when the coronavirus pandemic first hit Michigan. A few years ago, it was nearly $2 million in debt teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.

BGCSM also conducted a national search for a new CEO, eventually choosing Wilson, who had previously spent several years working with the Ford Motor Company Fund.

In the time since Wilson was appointed to lead BGCSM in 2018, the youth charity has embarked on a dramatic change of direction. After consulting with a wide range of community stakeholders, the organization refocused itself with a new emphasis on moving youth and their families up the ladder of economic mobility.

According to the University of Michigan's Poverty Solutions Department, the city of Detroit, where three of the nonprofits clubs are located, has a poverty rate of roughly 35 percent, nearly three times higher than the national average, and a child poverty rate of more than 50 percent. With numbers like that, it's not surprising that the nonprofit's new leadership saw a need to address poverty, something Wilson sees as a core issue underlying other problems the nonprofit confronts like teen pregnancy and low graduation rates.

With this in mind, BGCSM adopted a new focus on vocational training, and has so far raised $8.6 million of a $15 million goal to help implement its new direction. The youth charity has already reimagined and renovated its Dick and Sandy Dauch Campus on Detroit's west side to realize this vision. In addition to its gym and other traditional features, the 33,000-square-foot facility features an audio/video production studio; innovation lab with a 3D printer, laser printers, and coding station; self-care room for activities like meditation and yoga, and coworking space for parents. Other not-yet-completed additions include a café, laundromat, barbershop/salon, and test kitchen. The idea is that while kids can take advantage of these vocational training resources after-school, parents can make use of them and the co-working space during the daytime, an arrangement that benefits the whole family.

BGCSM is the first Boys and Girls club in the United States to offer these sorts of vocational services. The Dauch facility is intended to be a prototype for the seven other clubs in Southeast Michigan, which before COVID-19 hit, had been slated to undergo reimagining of their own by 2021.

The disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic, however, has pushed the nonprofit to reimagine itself once again. Due to the closing of public schools in Michigan and the need for social distancing, BGCSM's traditional role as a safe space for youth to connect with concerned adults who supervise them in athletics, arts, STEM and other activities isn't currently viable. Responding to the needs of the moment, the organization has closed its clubs and shifted its energies to the food delivery efforts. The youth charity has also doubled down on its case management work and instituted a new virtual club system that allows kids to participate from home through the internet. 

Wilson says the organization is well-positioned to meet the need long term, citing its affordable after-school programs for students and coworking space for adults.

"Because of the shifts that we’ve taken over the last year to focus more on economic mobility, to open our clubs as entrepreneurial and vocational training centers. I think we're well-positioned to meet our parents, our community and youth’s needs."

Instead of putting its re-envisioning on hold, BGCSM is “going to accelerate our Reimagining process and continue to invest in our virtual clubs and essential business functions because of the shift in culture and economy.”

Challenges on the horizon

Right now is an incredibly difficult time to be a service organization, but the resources that nonprofits like BGCSM, Detroit PAL, and other similar organizations offer are now more needed than ever. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced charitable groups to repurpose themselves as not only find new ways to finance themselves and unconventional crisis response providers but shifted their trajectory and mindset of how to best support the youth they serve — and their families.

It's unknown at the moment if measures like emergency grants or special government loans will arrive in time to support the local nonprofit community in a significant way. According to an analysis by Nonprofit Quarterly, the $2 trillion CARES Act stimulus bill signed into law last week provides significant funding for businesses, hospitals, schools, and charitable nonprofits. But beyond that uncertainty are more complicated issues tied to massive unemployment and the contraction of the economy.

BGCSM's Wilson is thankful that his organization has laid the groundwork to focus on issues of economic empowerment because he says that where the most necessary work is going to be needed in the not-so-distant future.

"The funding landscape is going to shift. In the short term it's going to shift to immediate needs. And then it's going to shift to issues around poverty," he says. "When things like this happen the most vulnerable among us are the hardest hit.”

This story is part of a four-part series in partnership with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Southeastern Michigan exploring the impact on youth and local organizations serving youths as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Read more articles by David Sands.

David Sands is a Detroit-based freelance writer. He's covered the news for Huffington Post Detroit as an assistant editor and worked as a staff writer for the transportation news site Mode Shift. Follow him on Twitter @dsandsdetroit.