Family. School. Community. These are the words we find ourselves saying over and over as we have developed and implemented the Good Shepherd Youth Reconnect (YR) Program here in Hamilton. These words form the basis of what we set out to do and how we evaluate how well we do it. Are we helping youth form stronger relationships with the people they call family? Are we working with youth to create healthy links with education? Have we guided youth to create lasting connections to their community? When we answer these questions with yes we feel confident we have done what we set out to do. What do you do then, when a global pandemic forces families to live in ways that increase stress, conflict and fear? When schools become seemingly inaccessible? When the community shuts down? What we did is what so many others have done: you take a step back, you evaluate, you adapt, and you move forward.

COVID 19 has led to many changes that impact the work we do in the YR program. So many of the skills we have been coaching families to use have now become impossible: taking a pause by going for a walk or visiting a friend when tensions arise, engaging in enjoyable activities together. This, coupled with the often-added financial stresses, worries about jobs and all of the other anxieties that COVID 19 has swept in to our lives have created so many difficulties in the lives of those we serve. It is important to remember that the pandemic won’t be the forever, that they can still use their skills, and that they will need each other to navigate this has been very helpful. Our workers have listened to parents, validated their concerns and provided them a place where their fears can be shared without judgment.

We have always relied heavily on the schools, both for referrals and as an ally in helping youth re-engage in the education system. The switch to online learning, as an alternative to continue school during the pandemic, not only affects the student’s ability to complete the curriculum but also means they have lessened access to the teachers, social workers and guidance counsellors who have become a source of support. It also means that the school staff who have been working with the YR team to identify youth who are in need and have lost access to their network of support. The shutdown of the schools initially felt like a huge hit for the YR team, but we are so thankful for the school staff who have long championed this program. They are the folks who are going above and beyond to work with the students, who are flexible to meet a student’s needs, and who understand the signs of someone is struggling. Having these relationships prior to COVID 19 has allowed us to continue to work with these individuals to continue the work of cultivating healthy relationships with schools.

YR has always put considerable effort in to connecting youth to community. Some of the most fulfilling work we do is when a youth joins an art group, starts taking yoga classes or reconnects with an old neighbor who becomes a great support. COVID 19 seemingly stopped a lot of this work in its tracks. Very quickly we had to pivot and figure out how we could still provide connection without in-person contact. We have managed this by ensuring we are well aware of online resources being offered by the local community, building a database of virtual activities youth can participate in, and started offering things like virtual guitar lessons.

Another major advantage of the YR program has always been the outreach component. When we receive a call from a referral source, our workers respond by meeting the youth wherever they feel comfortable. This usually means at a school, another community agency or even a coffee shop. The onset of COVID 19 meant that all of these places became inaccessible, and that we couldn’t even meet with youth face to face. This created a major barrier and we had to become quite proficient, quite quickly, at coming up with creative ways to connect with youth. This meant that we had to stop seeing texting, video chat, and social media as last resorts for connecting with young people and instead, as our best tools. This has not come without difficulties, or concern (How do we ensure privacy? Why aren’t the youth answering as quickly? What if they don’t have Wi-Fi?) But we have been addressing these issues as they arise. With the importance of technology being pushed to the forefront, we have worked to ensure that all of the youth we are working with have a cell phone. This way they are able to keep in touch with their friends, their community and us. Youth who do not have a cell phone have been provided one that has at least some, if limited, minutes. Many of the youth we work with were already way ahead of us in terms of proficiency with technology…we have been forced to catch up!

It is evident that a lot has had to change in the way we deliver services. But what remains constant is our commitment to the fundamentals of the YR model. The program still operates from a rights-based approach. We provide tailored case management support to youth and families. We respond in a timely and flexible way. Our focus continues to be on positive youth development. We continue to apply a cultural and contextual understanding in the work we do with young people and their families. These are the fundamentals of any YR program and a global pandemic doesn’t prevent us from doing work in this way. We have always been proud of the way the YR program has developed creative responses to meet the needs of the young people and family’s we work with. COVID 19 has challenged us to build our skills and push our imagination even further. Finally, the last thing that has not changed is the importance of strong partnerships and collaboration. While we have moved from in person to virtual meetings, our lines of communication have remained open and our relationships will come out of this pandemic just as strong.

COVID 19 has reminded us that a slower pace allows time for new connections to develop strong foundations. Being forced to take a step back has prompted us to remember that we have to ensure basic needs come first. As the situation develops so rapidly we have been given a crash course in how to be more anticipatory and less reactionary.

As we emerge from this pandemic our hope is that the biggest lesson we have all learned is the importance of preparedness. The YR program was developed in a way that we have been prepared to adapt and change and this is why we have continued to be able do this work with as little disruption as possible. Since prevention and preparedness go so hand in hand, YR is a strong example of why preventative work is essential.