Rebounding from COVID The challenge of bringing back summer youth programs


By Richard A. Rojas-Rangel

Through the pandemic, many teens forced into shelter not only lost contact with the people they care about, but they dropped out of extracurricular activities that can develop career-building skills.

Now, more than two years after the COVID-19 scare started, officials with Salinas-area youth programs are trying to rebuild the pre-COVID momentum, reaching out to young people who spent two years in quarantine.

“COVID didn’t really allow for us to meet until recently, and even if we could meet, it was rare,” said Gabriel Gutierrez Cardenas, a graduate of the Alisal Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement program (Alisal MESA).

Some community programs were either shut down or have been defunded, no longer providing the education and benefits that so many low-income families need. Such programs not only provided learning and world-building opportunities to the families involved but would also provide meals and stipends meant to alleviate the burden of the post-COVID economy.

The COVID experience was challenging, and programs lost participants along the way.

“During 2019 and 2020 we stopped in-person programming altogether and moved towards offering virtual options,” said Jose Arreola, director of the city of Salinas’ Youth and Government Institute, a program developed to promote youth involvement in civic affairs. “In many ways, we reached more people this way than we would with normal in-person programming. However, the level of engagement was more shallow.”

He says that interest is starting to pick up again now that the participants can gather face to face. Over the summer our youth sports  and recreation camps/programs, for elementary to middle school aged children were very well attended, he said.

“Our two high school aged focused programs the Youth and Government Institute and the Amor Salinas Community Service Camp both had wait lists,” he said.

The youth government program isn’t just a center for learning, but a hub for connection to growth. Meeting at the Salinas Breadbox community center in East Salinas, the program provided an opportunity for students and parents to form new bonds of friendships through the arts, sports and music.

While some youth programs are struggling to rebound after the pandemic, the cheer program at Salinas High had plenty of participants this summer. | Richard A. Rojas-Rangel

Other programs, like Radio Bilingue’s Alza Tu Voz/Speak Out youth program, are scrambling to recapture its funding and its participants.

“Lack of continuous funding can be a factor for many organizations to be successful,” said Jesus Ramirez, the program director. “Here in Radio Bilingue we have been lucky and grateful to continue with a youth project thanks to the vision of Radio Bilingue’s administration and the trust of our founder David and Lucile Packard Foundation.”

The program allows students the opportunity to learn communication skills while providing insight into community issues, giving them a voice and allowing them to interview community leaders about topical issues.

“Youth programs are important to the community because the youth need to have a sense of belonging and be proud of where they live,” Ramirez said. But the pandemic discouraged participation and the program is losing its funding, he said.

The problem is that many students simply don’t understand the opportunities available to them, or they lost the support or the direction they needed to promote their participation during the pandemic.

“As a youth, it is vital to have the resources to develop the talents one possesses, since adolescence is about discovering your identity and building relationships, which I believe are achieved through such programs,” said Diana Ochoa-Chavez, a recent Salinas High valedictorian and co-director of the Radio Bilingue program..

Added Fatima Laureano, a recent graduate of Alisal High: “I do feel like the pandemic affected the community as many people have family members who are of high risk in their homes. (The) program (I attended) didn’t do anything in the midst or post-pandemic, which highlights the great impact it brought upon our communities as many people greatly depended on such programs as an outlet.”

Gabriel Gutierrez Cardenas, another recent Alisal MESA graduate, said she noticed a decline in participation in the program. “I believe the main cause for this could be the lack of exposure MESA has for the students,” Gutierrez said.

Ochoa-Chavez also added that many Radio Bilingue participants feared spreading COVID-19 to their families, despite measures meant to reduce the likelihood.

Rubén Pizarro, director of the Salinas Valley Dream Academy, said his program has noticed a drop in applications in the past couple of years, but he said he’s not sure if it’s because students are avoiding the program due to COVID-19. But he said the pandemic might be a factor in other ways.

The Dream Academy promotes educational empowerment among high school students, and its annual programs are highlighted by major trips, including college visits and group travel overseas. The issue for Pizarro and the program is an inability to “come to terms with the travel agency on a price for our trips because of pandemic-related fuel surcharges,” he said. As a result, the academy hasn’t been able to promote, recruit and accept applications until later in the school year.

“That makes it more difficult for students who want to join and travel for various reasons including the fact that they have a larger monthly payment,” he said.

FEATURED ART: The cheer program at Salinas High School in July. | Richard A. Rojas-Rangel

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Young Voices Media Project teaches Monterey Bay area teens multimedia skills to report the news from their communities. This project was generously supported by the Clare Giannini Fund.