Ironically, one of the efforts to help connect young people to each other in South Carolina during this time of social distancing began because they were doing just the opposite.
After noticing that young people were still congregating despite stay-at-home orders, Antiwan Tate of the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance of South Carolina wanted to share information from experts so young people “could discover and educate themselves about what the pandemic is about,” he says. But early into the online conversation, the young people shifted the lens, speaking about the emotional toll the coronavirus pandemic has taken on them, their friends, and their families.
One high school senior, for example, talked about his sadness about no longer being able to hand his mother his diploma after walking across the stage at graduation, while college students expressed concerns about finances and the future. “It really hit home that there’s an emotional toll,” Tate says. “A conversation of awareness immediately switched to anxiety and concern—about parents, grandparents, guardians, and older relatives. What we got out of that was an opportunity to create a platform to help them educate themselves, be empowered, and have some control.”
Since its first installment in early April, the MBK Youth Talk series has provided a “refuge and safe place for young people to talk,” Tate says. Brought together by youth-serving organizations from across the state, the series, available to view on the organization’s Facebook page, has featured conversations about healthy eating and empowering young women. Future conversations will draw from state and national partners to focus on topics such as masculinity, mentorship, and mental health, as well as emergency readiness and virtual coursework in areas such as first aid and CPR.
“There are so many conversations that young people are bringing to the table that mean a lot to them,” Tate says.
MBK and other organizations that are participating in a collaborative of out-of-school providers focused on supporting the region’s young people convened by the Spartanburg Academic Movement (SAM) are also creating support lines, providing virtual mentoring, and creating groups such as book clubs to provide support, encouragement, and normalcy during this unprecedented time. Youth participating in the Uplift Outreach Center, which provides services to LGBT youth, created a closed online chat on Discord, an online community space, to replace the organization’s regular meetings. With adults serving as mediators, the virtual sessions follow the same drop-in model at the organization’s in-person activities.
“Uplift was founded to give these youth a social space. At this time, a virtual space is the best we can do to keep everyone healthy and safe," says Deb Foreman, the organization’s co-founder and president.
After canceling after school programs, Spartanburg County’s parks and recreation department has focused on distributing health-focused activities youth can complete at home, both via email and regular mail, says director Kevin Steins. For earth day, the department coordinated drive-through in-person pickups of garden kits in six locations. “We’re finding ways to keep them engaged and interested in a hands-off manner,” he says.
Events and activities such as these are vital to ensure that young people aren’t isolated during this time of social distancing. “What I’m hearing from young people is ‘consistency’ and ‘presence’,” Tate says. “The message is the same: ‘Don’t forget about us. We are here.’ We need to create conversations, content, and platforms.”