This is one of a series of stories in Voices of Monterey Bay’s Youth Civic Engagement Project, a look at how high school students are staying involved in civic organizations during the COVID-19 pandemic. More on the series here.
By Celine Castaneda and Maya Benitez
The COVID-19 pandemic has created real challenges for students trying to navigate high school while maintaining extracurricular activities. Organizations like the Salinas Valley Dream Academy and Community Alliance for Safety and Peace help, but even they have had to adapt to the pandemic.
Across the country, students of all ages try to work through the difficulties of online learning and the isolation from peers that comes with it. The restrictions of the pandemic have been especially difficult for teens to maintain engagement with their communities. But youth programs are essential to adolescent development as they promote important character and social developments and give students access to a network of support outside their families.
Many youth organizations in Monterey County have adapted to the reality of the pandemic by switching to a virtual engagement model, using Zoom and similar platforms to accommodate their club participation.
The Salinas Valley Dream Academy, originally the “Dreams of D.C. Club,” was born about 11 years ago by the sheer determination of a group of staff and students at Alisal High School hoping to attend the inauguration of the first African-American president of the United States.The club was able to fundraise $100,000 to take 60 students and adults to witness Barack Obama’s historic moment in 2009.
Since then, the club has shifted its focus to motivate, support and educate youth of all backgrounds as well as empower them in the community. For the past 10 years, the Dream Academy,now a citywide program in Salinas, has supported thousands of students to find their voice, said Ernesto Vela, team leader and vice president of the Dream Academy board.
Vela says the organization’s primary goal is to encourage students to seek a college education and support them through the college admission process. Vela explains that the Dream Academy “also supports students in understanding the college admission process, such as preparation for personal insight questions, resume building, and parent education on college admission.” The program also travels with students to both in-state and out-of-state colleges to give them an insight into the college experience.
As has been the case for many organizations, the pandemic has been challenging for the Dream Academy. “Our organization is anchored on building relationships,” Vela said. “We have a group of fantastic team leaders with their own success stories. Not being able to see our students in person has limited our ability to connect with them on a personal level.”
“The underlying concern, of course, is our student’s mental health and motivation,” he said. One of their top goals is to prepare for their Europe trip in June 2021.
The Community Alliance for Safety and Peace, familiarly known as CASP, is another organization in Monterey County working to provide vital services to young people. Founded in 2008 to reduce gang and youth violence in Salinas, the organization grew and evolved by working with other community groups focused on housing, health and youth services.
CASP is made up of youth service organizations, county housing and health officials, local and state elected officials, criminal justice and law enforcement organizations, educational leaders, business leaders, representatives of the faith community, and private funding organizations, said CASP administrator Jose Arreola, who notes that more than 30 organizations and leaders are involved.
CASP members say they are worried about the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on the community. “Our biggest fears are the exacerbation of poverty and domestic violence,” Arreola said. “It has been our experience that the majority of gang and violence impacted youth we serve are survivors (of) or currently experiencing domestic violence.”
It has been difficult to intervene because “many of our public safety measures that would normally spot domestic violence in all its forms are not available to people,” Arreola said. With schools closed, teachers are less likely to spot warning signs in the student used to see in person daily, he added.
CASP has been able to shift many projects to a virtual space. “We have engaged youth and their families through distributions of hand-made recreation kits that represent art, crafts, and STEM activities” to keep children entertained and engaged in quarantine, according to Arreola. In addition, the Recreation Division created original videos that correspond with the distributed kits providing an explanation for the projects. STEM refers to science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
It’s obvious 2020 has been a year like no other and yet the will of the community is what brings light out of complete darkness.
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