As schooling remains remote, the organization is providing new solutions for virtual learning, food relief and more.

By Steve Adubato | December 18, 2020 | Appears in the December 2020 New Jersey Monthly issue

When schools in New Jersey went virtual at the start of the pandemic, it seemed like a temporary situation. Now, it is evident that a hybrid, if not totally virtual, mode of educating our children will be the norm for some time to come.

While many students have successfully adapted to this new normal, it’s more problematic for children in underserved and vulnerable communities. Many don’t have home access to computers or Wi-Fi. In some cases, their parents or caretakers have had to return to work and can’t be home to support their kids’ efforts to learn remotely.

The Boys & Girls Club of Paterson and Passaic recognized these and other pandemic-related issues and found new ways to serve its community. In September, the club reimagined its two clubhouses as centers where kids in grades K–12 could go to log into their classes. The centers are open 7:30 am–5:30 pm, so parents can go back to work. In some cases, the state provides childcare subsidies for attendees; in others, the program is deeply discounted.

The club is also providing the kids with the tools they need to succeed. “Between our two locations, we have almost 250 students who have been provided Chromebooks,” says Wendy McGuire, CEO of Boys & Girls Club of Paterson and Passaic. “We have Wi-Fi, but most importantly, we have staff members that help the students log into their classes every day.”

The club has instituted a number of precautions to protect kids and staff. Kids stay with the same staff in the same room at all times. If there is a Covid-19 case, the club can close down that pod and avoid further spread. At the end of the day, after the kids leave, staffers sanitize the buildings.

The organization has expanded its services in a number of other innovative ways during the pandemic. “Pre-pandemic, we served about 1,500 kids per day at 10 locations in Paterson and Passaic,” McGuire says. “In March, when schools closed, we had to adapt how we would serve the community.”

The club began providing emergency food relief. Over a 12-week period, the club’s two gymnasiums became food warehouses. “We delivered half a million pounds of food,” McGuire says. “Our youth-development specialists became emergency food-relief workers. It was meaningful during a time when everyone felt they weren’t as useful as they could be staying at home, but more importantly, it was very impactful.”

In June, the club opened for summer camp for about 130 kids, serving breakfast and lunch daily.

And in November, the club launched a virtual teen program—mainly for high school seniors—to provide support with SAT prep, college applications and FAFSA completion. “We have partnered with the district to make sure these seniors get to the finish line on time,” McGuire says. “Then, from January through June 2021, we will offer a more robust virtual program for freshmen through juniors.” In total, by June 2021, McGuire expects the club will have served 250 teens.

Simply put, says McGuire, “it is incredibly important for everyone to understand that the kids in Paterson and Passaic are the same as the kids in Bergen County. They are smart. They are ambitious. They are intelligent. They are polite. They are funny. But the major difference is opportunity.”