A key mantra for the staff at St. Stephen’s Youth Programs—and especially for Latasha Scott, the middle school coordinator for the youth leadership corps there—is to ask people what they need, not assume the staff already knows.
St. Stephen’s is a non-profit organization with two sites in Boston’s South End and Lower Roxbury neighborhoods. Its mission is to promote equity in education, employment, and opportunity for youth and families in the surrounding communities.
As with so many businesses and organizations, the COVID-19 pandemic forced St. Stephen’s to find new ways to fulfill its mission. The organization moved all of its programs online, and set up weekly opportunities for families to get supplies they might need, for free.
“I think we found a different type of way to interact and make sure we create space and meet our youth and families where they’re at right now,” says Scott, who is a student in the College of Professional Studies at Northeastern, studying health science while she works as a Massachusetts Promise Fellow at St. Stephen’s Youth Programs.
At first, Scott and other staff assumed families would need canned goods, plain cereal, and tissues. But when the staff reached out to families, they found that people requested instead jasmine rice, onions, peppers, and laundry detergent.
It was a reminder to listen to the families they serve.
“We really try to get them what they asked for versus just giving them what we think is sustainable,” says Scott.
Many people in the families that St. Stephen’s serves have lost their jobs and are struggling financially, Scott says. To help, certain staff members call families each week to ask what they need, and how the organization can best be a resource for them.
Then, on a dedicated day each week, a few families come by St. Stephen’s to receive the essentials, such as food and cleaning supplies, as well as cash and any fun items for the children in the families. The program is on a brief hiatus, but will restart on July 13, Scott says.
The shift from assuming what families needed to listening to their specific requests was an important one, Scott says.
She compares it to helping a blind person cross the street without asking. You might assume that you know that the blind person needs you to take their hand and walk them across the street. Instead, they may simply have needed someone to push the crosswalk button.
When school was in session, Scott and her staff also helped local middle school students with their homework, provided a space for social and emotional support, and taught them skills they’ll need throughout their lives.
Still, the move online—necessitated by guidelines from public health officials to reduce crowd sizes and enforce physical distancing—has been a struggle for the youth, Scott says. It’s harder to get them to engage with activities for as long as they would’ve in person.
“It went from a lot of hands-on peer engagement—‘What can I do for you right now, physically, to make sure you’re in the space that you need to be in?’—to virtual, less communication,” Scott says.
And yet, the services provided by Scott and other staff at St. Stephen’s haven’t gone unappreciated.
Families have organized drive-bys and made posters to thank the staff at St. Stephen’s for their assistance, Scott says. They’ve sent emails, and taken pictures of the children and teens with the supplies at home.
Scott tears up as she recalls how one mother—who only spoke Spanish— typed her message of gratitude into Google Translate, and printed it out in English to bring to Scott.
“It reminds me that it’s not just me going through this; I’m going through this with my youth and families,” Scott says.
If she could say anything to her youth now, Scott says, she would remind them that everyone at St. Stephen’s has their back, and remember what they talk about:
Feel safe, feel big, and feel connected.