Nobody is prepared for a pandemic. The world has experienced that firsthand over the past six months, and Family Scholar House (FSH) has been no different. When all this began in March, our leadership team gathered together to brainstorm for the worst-case scenarios, the supplies we would need, and how we would continue to deliver high quality services to the families we serve in the face of a global pandemic. Looking back, it was the ability to jump into action (even without all the pieces to the puzzle) and pivot that allowed us to continue to serve student parents and their children during these challenging times.

In the previous 18 months, our agency invested in the development of a customized database to not only put all of our files online but also to standardize the information gathered about every family we serve. In 2019, FSH served 4,694 single parents with 6,208 children and 477 foster alumni, plus 301 seniors and 2,279 other adults from our community.

With more information at our fingertips, we are able to see all the needs of a family and the bigger picture of how to help them realize their goals. Additionally, we built our online resource web-app and our online learning platform to provide on-demand access to resources and life-skills that supplement the academic coaching and family advocacy that are provided to residents and non-residents alike. Our recently launched Response Center became the standard for staying connected to all of our participants, allowing us to have weekly and sometimes daily video chats with participants, book readings for our little scholars, and virtual tutoring for those missing the interaction with teachers in the classroom. COVID-19 put all of this to the test. Ultimately, these tools provided a roadmap to guide us through the changing landscape of the coronavirus, isolation, homeschooling, and the increased needs of our student parent families and our community.

Our staff members were also swept into this pandemic, with each team member trying to figure out how to manage their own lives while supporting and caring for the single-parent families and youth we serve. Any degree of separation between work and home disappeared, almost overnight. It was in the early stages that Family Scholar House staff showed what we are made of. Our team pulled together in every way imaginable, initiating morning meetings that allowed our staff to come together (virtually) at the beginning of each day to share, listen, advocate, and support one another as we navigated uncharted territory. Starting in the first week of COVID-19, our staff members transitioned to working from home and coordinated weekly drop-offs at each campus to ensure those that count on us knew that while this looked different, we were still there. Needs increased and shifted with our staff reassuring our families that their basic needs would not go unmet. Everybody quickly moved together to adjust to new roles and help those we serve.

Our family advocates and academic and apprenticeship coaches maximized interactions using Google Hangouts and Zoom sessions, because at FSH we truly value face-to-face interaction. This also meant that staff members needed to be sure that our participants had the technology they needed for this new normal and provide Chromebooks for anyone who did not have the basics for an online presence. Technology was essential, as suddenly, student parents were not only completing their college coursework online but also overseeing the homeschooling of their children. There were all sorts of challenges and some tears; however, many parents shared with us that the support of their advocates and coaches made an unbearable situation manageable.

Online workshops set new records for utilization and virtual support groups flourished with invitations to join us with a cup of coffee to discuss the topic of the day. With new levels of community need and so many recently displaced workers, many people called for the first time to learn how to become part of the FSH family. In order to meet this need, after only two weeks, our weekly orientations transitioned to online, including all electronic paperwork so that there were no delays or gaps in the welcome process.

We also helped our participants face the fears, anxiety, anger, and feelings of hopelessness that came from the sudden change in their world and the isolation required to keep people safe. From the early weeks, we recognized new and changing needs for the physical health and mental well-being of our student parent families. To support our participants, we hired a health and wellness coach and leveraged our art therapist, both working with individuals and groups to give them a safe place to process their feelings and create new ways to manage their challenges. Our art therapist dropped off art supplies on the doorsteps of our participants who wanted to engage in virtual art therapy, an outlet many had grown to rely. In addition, our art therapist was available to staff to ensure everyone was taking care of themselves and had access to a safe space to process and just be.

These past several months have been fast paced, emotional, trying, and at times just downright exhausting. Yet, we can see the muscle we have built from this experience. We have found new ways to do things that improve the lives of all we serve and the team that serves them. For example, when staff members need to come on campus to distribute hot meals, pantry foods, and supplies, they can prepare them while wearing masks, social distancing, and utilizing contactless drop-offs. Campuses previously filled with chatting neighbors, playing children, and laughter, were now eerily quiet. Yet, our staff have been greeted with thank you messages written in chalk on the sidewalk, post-it notes on doors, and signs in windows from our participants who want to make sure our wonderful FSH staff feel appreciated for the work they put in. In the midst of this difficult, uncomfortable, and unpredictable time, we have received voicemails saying “Thank you – you have no idea what this means to me. God bless you,” and Black participants thanking staff members for “bringing up racial injustices and checking in to see how they are doing and how FSH can support their family.”

The families behind each brightly colored door, the passionate, dedicated staff members, and the compassionate community make Family Scholar House what it is: family! That has been the biggest lesson learned for our team. The time we pour into every single person that walks through the door at Family Scholar House results in them knowing they can depend on us. We will be there to show up in their time of need. In good times and in challenging ones, family shows up, supports, and helps. That’s our commitment. Being family is what we will continue to do, regardless of how different it may look in a post-COVID world. #ThisIsFamilyScholarHouse

Cathe Dykstra is the president and chief executive officer of Family Scholar House. She is a National Advisor with the Ascend Postsecondary Success for Parents Initiative.

Photo provided by Family Scholar House.