Youth groups transition to in-person programming

Teenagers sit together.
Baltimore’s NCSY chapter holds an outdoor, in-person program.

For teens, the pandemic has created and added to anxiety and social isolation. One thing that may help is youth group programming, brought to them by organizations like 4Front, StandWithUs and NCSY.

In the fall of 2020, 4Front was holding all of its programs virtually. In the spring, as teenagers began to receive the vaccine and the weather got warmer, 4Front shifted to having both virtual and outdoor programming.

“Teens are really looking for that [in-person] connection,” said Sam Kahan Strakes, 4Front’s co-managing senior director. “It’s about mental health also. We, as humans, need that interaction. If we were able to provide it, we would be happy to do that.”

Part of Strakes’ job as co-managing senior director is working with parents to ensure that they have the right tools to help their teens during challenging times. As the country reopens and the world attempts to move forward, parents say that their children are really struggling with reentry, Strakes said. Teens are questioning how they can go back to normal and leave the pandemic behind.

Most 4Front programs were able to adjust and pivot for the pandemic. For example, Diller Teen Fellows, 4Front’s year-long immersive leadership program, will not be bringing teens to Israel this summer, as it normally does. Instead, 4Front planned special trips and programs to make up for the loss.

“Our 4Front staff is always there for teens in the community,” Strakes said. “We want to support mental health in the community.”

StandWithUs’ high school outreach department pivoted to virtual programming at the very start of the pandemic. The organization decided to forgo in-person programming entirely in order to focus on virtual events and has continued to do so. The organization hopes to eventually transition to a hybrid model.

“The decision we came to was: Can we provide the same level of programming virtually?” said Nathan Altshuler, StandWithUs’ senior mid-Atlantic high school coordinator. “We did. In my case, we used technology to provide new innovation to those programs.”

StandWithUs also faced the challenge of how to hold their two annual conferences that usually take place in California. Both conferences, the StandWithUs International Conference: Israel in Focus and its High School Conference, include interaction between participants. StandWithUs was able to reformat both of those conferences on a
virtual platform.

As for their mission, Altshuler believes that the mid-Atlantic region has accomplished the same as they usually do and then some.

Unlike 4Front and StandWithUs, Baltimore’s NCSY chapter started in-person outdoor programming last fall. Before that, NCSY held learning programs over Zoom with breakout rooms for better one-on-one interaction between advisers and teens. NCSY found that virtual programming was better than not having a program at all, but it was not ideal.

“We wanted to find an option with a safe environment,” said Menucha Fink, Baltimore NCSY’s program coordinator, on transitioning to in-person programming. “Everyone filled out COVID-19 waivers to make sure everyone was healthy
and well.”

In addition to challenges brought by the pandemic, one of NCSY’s main hangout spots, Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, shut down last year. This had NCSY looking for a place to go with a nice outdoor seating due to COVID-19.

Instead, NCSY was able to hold their Latte and Learning program at Mama Leah’s in Pikesville, where the teens sat outside to learn and eat. These programs happened outside through the winter, no matter the weather.

“When school shut down, programming was a constant where teens knew they could be in a safe environment with their friends,” Fink said.

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