Sonya Tomlinson of The Telling Room in Portland, on a Zoom call with students. Tomlinson said the socialization offered by her organization has been critical for students learning entirely remotely this year. (Courtesy The Telling Room)
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Community organizations that have helped provide extra support to Portland’s youth over the past year are ramping up their efforts as city high school students prepare to return to in-person learning on a hybrid schedule next week.

Whether providing meals, tutoring, or just opportunities to safely socialize, several nonprofits have tried to fill the void left by remote learning during the pandemic. 

One of the agencies is Portland Community Squash, which Senior Executive Director Barrett Takesian said went from being primarily a youth development program before the pandemic to one that now focuses on supporting entire families.

Portland Community Squash at 66 Noyes St. pivoted during the coronavirus pandemic to serve more of its members’ families through an adviser program that included neighborhood check-ins. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)

Portland Community Squash offers several programs beyond teaching how to play squash; Takesian said people can think of it as a “mini YMCA” that provides wrap-around services. 

After the onset of the pandemic, Portland Community Squash created an adviser program, which Takesian said has been utilized by 60 percent of its students. It paired each student’s family with a staff member for neighborhood visits, check-ins, and tutoring.

The family check-ins were necessary to make sure families had what they needed, Takesian said, especially at the beginning of the pandemic, when many were navigating filing for unemployment and acquiring personal protective equipment. The adviser program was so successful that it will continue after the pandemic, he said.

The Portland Community Squash Board also allocated $100,000 toward its membership program, which allowed more students and their families to come to the facility to play squash free of charge.

Additionally, two weeks ago, Portland Community Squash launched PortlandYouth.org in partnership with PortlandConnectED and the United Way of Greater Portland. Takesian said the new website allows posts by a range of local community organizations for young people, including summer camps, internships, and after-school programs.

The website has already improved relationships between the different organizations by allowing them to work more collaboratively, he said, and has strengthened their ties with local schools.

From a learning perspective, Takesian said he thinks the high school students Portland Community Squash serves have learned an “entirely new skillset” over the past year, which has impressed him, although he said he still has “major concerns” about the toll the pandemic has taken on their social-emotional health.

Boys and Girls Club

The Boys and Girls Club of Southern Maine has been another resource for students during the pandemic. 

Before the pandemic, any individual club typically served between 400 and 500 kids between the ages of 6 and 18 each day, Chief Executive Brian Elowe said. Now the organization’s five locations serve approximately 3,000 young people.

The Boys and Girls Club of Southern Maine at 277 Cumberland Ave. in Portland started serving grab-and-go meals to its members during the coronavirus pandemic. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)

When the clubs were forced to close their doors due to the pandemic, Elowe said they immediately pivoted to serving grab-and-go meals, since food was a basic need the organization wanted to meet.

Since last fall, Southern Maine’s Boys and Girls Clubs have also been partnered with Portland Public Schools and school districts in South Portland and Lewiston-Auburn to act as a hybrid site for elementary school students on days they are not in school.

Through that program, Elowe said, the clubs support approximately 320 students per week.

The clubs also tried to stay connected to older members, Elowe said, by distributing scholarships to last year’s high school seniors and putting congratulatory signs on their lawns when they graduated. Club staff also made countless video conference calls to the older teens.

Despite that, Elowe echoed Takesian’s concerns.

He noted that with few in-person school or athletic opportunities during the pandemic, the Boys and Girls Club is aware of an increase in isolation and depression that has occurred among teenagers, which he said is especially prevalent among the population of young people the clubs serve.

“We’re hoping that with vaccinations increasing that we get the teens back,” he said.

Elowe added that he hopes to have the clubs “fully back up and running” by fall. 

The Telling Room

Commercial Street writing center The Telling Room has also helped fill the gaps left by remote learning. 

Sonya Tomlinson, who heads The Telling Room’s Young Writers and Leaders program, said she often heard from students that classes at The Telling Room were the highlight of their week.

All students in the free, nine-month program are in high school and are either first-generation international students or have multicultural backgrounds.

In addition to the pandemic, Tomlinson said many of the Young Writers and Leaders students were deeply affected by the death of George Floyd last summer and the ensuing social justice movement. Some were also graduating.

“There’s so many layers, so many elements all at once, and I think, in my experience, having that anchor of coming to a Telling Room program was critical,” she said.

The “regularity of socialization,” Tomlinson added, was key, since each of The Telling Room’s programs carves out time for students to read and share their writing, as well as chatting about their lives.

Tomlinson said she thinks it is critical for students to have a “touchpoint” to evaluate what they are feeling, especially because some of them experienced depression for the first time last year. 

“(It’s important) not just to check in introspectively with where they’re at, but also where we’re at,” she said. “To ask, ‘is it OK for me to feel this? Is it OK for me to feel depressed, is it OK for me to feel house-bound?’”

The Young Writers and Leaders Program also experienced some excitement when former President Barack Obama had a Zoom call with them as part of the press tour for his new book earlier this year.

Youmna Mohamed, one of the students enrolled in Young Writers and Leaders, said the program has introduced her to “the writer that lies within” and gives her and her peers a place to express what they feel.

“We listen to each other, laugh, share stories, crack jokes and also act serious if needed,” Mohamed said. “Even though it’s all virtual at least there is a place for you to resort to. A place where you feel you belong.”