Creating Stability for Bay Area Families: How Youth-serving Organizations Adopted a Whole Family Approach during COVID-19

By: Verenice Chavoya and Heather Lewis-Charp

As the Bay Area began to shelter-in-place on March 17, 2020, community and school-based organizations in Oakland and San Francisco (like organizations across the country) scrambled to reinvent the way that they do their work. They returned to the ‘drawing boardso that they could meet the immediate needs of the Bay Area community. As the evaluation partners of Oakland Fund for Children and Youth and the San Francisco Beacon Community Schools, our team witnessed the ways that community programs pivoted to meet the immediate needs of low-income children and families throughout the Bay Area.

Programs experienced significant challenges in the early phases of the shelter-in-place order. First and foremost, staff were overwhelmed by the consequences of the shelter-in-place for the Bay Area’s most vulnerable youth and families. The absence of a playbook for how they should transition their services, coupled with the uncertainty of when the shelter-in-place would end, exacerbated the stress that staff were experiencing.

Even with these challenges, most programs rapidly shifted from in person services to virtual platforms, in coordination with their partners. They also broadened their mission and services beyond their typical programming, so that they could meet the immediate and pressing needs of Bay Area families. They supported families in the following ways:

  • Supporting families with accessing food. Food insecurity became one of the most pressing challenges experienced by Bay Area communities. This prompted organizations to connect families to community food banks and school district food distribution sites. Some programs distributed food directly to families’ homes.
  • Increased crisis support directly and through partners. Many programs worked with partners to connect families with housing, clothes, and mental health support. Furthermore, many programs took an active role assisting families to file for unemployment, SNAP, and other benefits.
  • Integrating services as part of a whole family approach. Some programs realized that many families simply needed more ‘hands on deck.’ For example, one program described that they were providing childcare for essential workers. Another program reached out to a recent newcomer family and realized the family was in crisis. A staff member mobilized resources to provide the family with temporary housing, clothes, and food.
  • Raising private donations to provide direct funding assistance to families impacted by loss of jobs. Some programs took on the role as philanthropists. They raised funds and gathered private donations for families needing financial support. This was particularly important for newcomer families that were at risk of losing their jobs, but would not be eligible for unemployment or COVID-19 relief funds as described in the CARES Act that was signed into law on March 27th, 2020.
  • Providing programming virtually, using Zoom or other online platforms. Programs also had to rapidly shift from in-person programming to using platforms such as Zoom and Google Meet to engage with parents/caregivers and youth. Recognizing that Bay Area families and youth face a stark digital divide, programs had to quickly conduct assessments on access to phones, laptops, and internet. Programs often served as a conduit to support Bay Area families that lacked access with local community resources for both laptops and the internet.
  • Developing, updating, and creating new curriculum and content for virtual settings. Once shelter-in-place was announced, programs focused on modifying program curriculum to be delivered within virtual settings. One program that uses a validated, in-person parenting curriculum for parents/caregivers in their program held conversations with curriculum creators to find effective approaches for engaging participants virtually while maintaining program fidelity. Programs supporting students in afterschool settings partnered with schools to identify the best times to offer enrichment services.
  • Sharing information and resources related to COVID-19. Finally, many programs also focused on supporting parents/caregivers and youth with information on COVID-19. One Family Resource Center in Oakland virtually engaged parents/caregivers and young children in learning about COVID-19, using creative songs to explain social distancing, handwashing, and how to be safe and healthy. Programs mentioned providing families with information on where to access COVID-19 tests and securing cleaning and disinfectant supplies. One program provided materials for making masks to parents/caregivers and via Zoom and showed parents/caregivers how to make masks for their families.

Through our research we were able to document how, in response to the shelter-in-place order, Bay Area youth programs quickly pivoted to a whole family approach. Like organizations across the country, their adaptability and responsiveness in a time of uncertainty and crises helped to create some stability for the most vulnerable families.