Railroad Street Youth Project is one of the most dynamic and inventive mentoring organizations in Massachusetts, and their 20 year legacy is one of developing creative solutions to institutional problems. To talk about how RYSP is overcoming the current challenges posed by COVID-19, RYSP’s Mentoring Coordinator Mica Reel was kind enough to speak with me on the subject.
1. How has RYSP innovated to meet the needs of youth during the Covid pandemic?
Through relationships with staff members, mentors, and the organization has with young people, RSYP has been able to follow youth leadership to adapt to shifting needs during the COVID pandemic. Some of those innovations have included a youth-run and youth-facilitated weekly self-care club running entirely on ZOOM. We have also moved other programs online including our weekly Youth Operational Board run by our youth interns. In August, with the leadership of our apprenticeship coordinator and a youth leader, we ran a free four-week culinary program featuring a youth cook as well as a past constituent who now works as a chef.Each week, 10 young people would receive a free box of ingredients and then hop on ZOOM on Wednesday evening, and together they would cook incredible meals and desserts. One such meal was a salmon dish!
Mentoring has also been able to expand its reach online. We also held a weekly painting apprenticeship on ZOOM. Moving mentoring to ZOOM, we have been able to connect our young people with mentors who exactly match the kind of support they are looking for. Pre-existing mentoring pairs have gotten creative, spending more time outdoors, and coming up with new ways to learn from each other in socially distant ways. One such way is going to a local river spot and freestyle rapping every week! Another program we moved online was the Talk About It program which is a group mentoring program for middle school students of color. With the uprisings this summer, it was clear that that space was needed, so we continued to meet on ZOOM and in August met up socially distant and outdoors. Toward the beginning of the pandemic, RSYP got a large tent for the skate park, and the youth staff set up socially distant chairs and fans so that young people could still spend time together in a safe manner. These are just some of the ways RSYP was able to adapt to the current moment.
2. What has been the greatest challenge and the greatest success you've had during this adjustment?
The greatest challenge has been figuring out how to connect with new young people. Usually outreach involves going to the schools and walking the hallways and meeting new young people. Without those hallways, we are figuring out creative ways to reach young folks who we haven't yet met. The greatest success has been all of the youth leadership during this time. Because of our youth interns and other involved young people, many programs have successfully moved online. Because of online YOB, young people in the community were able to make a proposal to get funding to create a mural for Black Lives Matter. Many young people came together to design and create this mural, and it now hangs in a public spot in our town.
3. What if any programs or activities have you started running now that many students have returned to school?
Most of the programming we have brought online I wrote about earlier. This programming will continue into the school year. We are in the planning phases of developing a new group mentoring program to meet the needs of online learners. RSYP also teaches sex education to our local schools and we are planning to adapt to online learning, and are in the planning phases of that as well. We are continuing to look to young people and listen to what it is that they need right now, and what kind of programming would best serve them. We will keep you updated on what happens this coming fall!
Samuel Steed is an AmeriCorps Ambassador of Mentoring Communications and Network Outreach Associate at Mass Mentoring Partnership.