The donated turkey, potatoes and pumpkin pie Camille Martin received at Kent Youth and Family Services a few weeks ago offered a luxury outside her budget: Her family would have a Thanksgiving feast this year.
“It means a lot to the kids,” said Martin. “They’re so excited about Thanksgiving and the turkey.”
As the mother of a 3-year-old in the Kent-based nonprofit’s early learning program, Martin has come to rely on the center and its weekly food distribution after she lost her substitute teaching job at Kent schools during the coronavirus pandemic. A mother of seven, Martin’s loss of income made it challenging to feed her children who would normally eat breakfast and lunch at school.
Originating in a Kent house over 50 years ago, Kent Youth and Family Services — one of 12 organizations that benefit from readers’ donations to The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy — has since expanded to locations throughout the area where it offers behavioral health, after-school and early-learning programs, as well as transitional housing to thousands of youth and families. Like many nonprofits, it has been forced to adapt its programming during the coronavirus pandemic.
Since last March, the organization has provided food, virtual support and homework packets to Martin and the thousands of other families who attend the center’s early-learning and after-school programs. Children who need additional support are spread out throughout the center in new learning hubs.
On a recent Wednesday, a steadily growing line of cars formed outside the Kent Family Center on Southeast 274th Street in Kent as staff placed boxes brimming with fresh food including produce, milk, eggs and taco meat in the back seats. Over the past few months, organizations contracted through the USDA have provided about 400 boxes of free food per week to the center’s families.
Staff have brainstormed new ways to maintain connections with participants who already faced barriers to accessing resources before the pandemic; 98% of children in the early-learning and after-school programs qualify for free or reduced lunches, and nearly half of youth are refugees or immigrants, according to the center’s 2019 annual report.
Monday through Friday, Martin’s 3-year-old son tunes into his early-learning classes through Zoom for 30 minutes — a drastic change from the three-hour sessions her older children attended five days a week several years ago. Still, the daily videos and story time offer a sense of structure.
“As a parent you need someone to ask questions to and get ideas from,” said Martin, who sometimes calls a family support member to get parenting advice or to request donated clothes for her children. “This is such a vital service that they’re providing.”
Within a week of the statewide lockdown in late March, the early-learning program transformed into a virtual classroom. About 40 families have received refurbished computers donated to the center. Once a week, the nonprofit Eastside Baby Corner drops off free cribs, diapers and baby formula for participants.
While former Executive Director Michael Heinisch said the center quickly rose to the economic and structural challenges posed by the pandemic, he is concerned that participants’ social and emotional development will be stunted.
“As this goes on it gets harder and harder for kids to keep attention,” Heinisch said. In response, the organization is considering offering one-on-one behavioral and therapeutic services to children in person at the center.
Since Intervention and Prevention Specialist Deepeka Taya joined the staff last October, she said it’s been difficult to hold students accountable and to track them down during virtual check-ins.
“Every day I reach out and just hope that they want to reach back out to me, too,” said Taya. The children she counsels face a slew of challenges, such as acting as caregivers for their younger siblings, and being unable to get academic help from their parents with limited English skills. Some are suffering from depression.
More than anything, she wants her clients to know: “They’re not alone.”
As a former participant in the center’s after-school program and Girl Scouts, Taya’s experience at Kent Youth and Family Services has come full circle. The organization’s math tutors coached her throughout her childhood when her parents, who hadn’t attended school, were unable to help her with classwork. She learned resilience and persistence through the center’s basketball courses, and a nutrition class taught her how to have a healthy diet.
The organization soon became a home away from home for Taya and her family. When her father was diagnosed with stage 4 throat cancer during her final year in the public-health program at University of Washington, staff at the center would check in on her regularly to ensure that she was OK. As the first person in the family to complete a college degree, she was concerned that her father wouldn’t make her graduation while he was in treatment. So staff showed up at her graduation ceremony to show support.
When she landed her current position, Taya felt that she was giving back to the community that had helped raise her. “Now I’m doing outreach, and at one point people were doing outreach with us,” said Taya, adding, “If it weren’t for their good influence, then I don’t know if I’d be able to be here with a college degree.”
Her brother Paramjit Taya, along with Alfred Chol and Hussein Mberwa, also work in the center’s after-school program that they once attended.
“It’s my childhood,” Mberwa said as he sat in the center’s empty gymnasium that was once bustling with students. Over the past few months, the move from in-person to online has whittled down the after-school courses such as athletics, but new online classes on other topics have been added.
Mberwa is using the skills he’s learning as a cybersecurity student at Green River College to teach virtual computer classes. Students in his class learn how to compose emails, code and create games.
Chol teaches a podcasting class where the students discuss topics that they want to talk about, such as cartoons or their school life. “It’s an opportunity to teach them how to express their feelings and feel comfortable talking to each other,” Chol said.
When protests on racial injustice broke out during the summer, the after-school staff created an online dialogue through Zoom for students to express their feelings — an approach that staff said led to deeper connections.
Virtual after-school activities such as video games are interwoven with pop quizzes on spelling and math. “A lot of it is tricking them into thinking that we’re doing something fun, but actually we’ve woven some academic, or social-emotional skills,” said Cyoon McBride, Kent Youth and Family Services’ after-school program director.
In McBride’s eyes, a silver lining of the pandemic has been meeting new families at the Wednesday food distributions. In a way, he believes that it’s fostered closeness within the community. People have cried when McBride has handed them food, which he said serves as a reminder of the collective power of giving.
“We’re all in this together,” said McBride.