Editor’s Note: This story is part of the 50 Businesses, 50 Solutions series that aims to highlight how business leaders across the state, from mom and pop shops, to large corporations have adapted to meet the challenges and disruptions caused by the novel coronavirus in the hopes others may be able to replicate these ideas and innovations.
In normal times, the nine staff members of The Youth Council in Nashua are busy shuffling between court and schools, providing support and guidance to at-risk youth in the city. The non-profit serves about 500 youth and their families each year, with programs including court diversion (where first-time youth offenders can avoid a permanent record), counseling, student assistance and a suspension center, where kids who have been kicked out of school can complete their work.
When the pandemic closed schools, moved courts to remote sessions and reduced arrests throughout the state, The Youth Council stepped into a new role of supporting youth and families from a distance.
“The biggest problem is not being able to be in the room together,” said Donna Arias, executive director of The Youth Council.
The organization takes a holistic approach to helping kids who are getting in trouble, working with the entire family to address underlying issues. Getting everyone together in person is a big part of that, Arias explained.
“When kids get in trouble, there’s usually something else going on,” she said. “Reading body language and non-verbal communication is critical to understanding what’s going on so we can offer the best solutions.”
For now, in-person counseling sessions are off the table, but insurance companies issued waivers allowing for counseling to be delivered remotely, allowing The Youth Council to continue providing service. Many insurance plans don’t cover tele-health normally, but during the pandemic they are.
There have been challenges in switching to tele-health, including making sure kids have a place where they can talk privately, Arias said. But there have also been many upsides, including easy access to services for clients.
“We have a lot of no-shows or late cancellations, just because of the challenges to getting to appointments,” Arias said, including access to transportation or child care. If the organization is able to offer tele-health service permanently, it could help address late cancellations and no-show appointments, thereby reducing the costs, she said.
While some teens involved with The Youth Center have had a hard time adjusting to remote learning, Arias was surprised to see that others flourished without in-person school.
“For some kids, their biggest stressors were the interactions they had at school. With the shift in how we live, some of that stress went away for some of our kids,” she said, adding that it may be worth exploring remote learning opportunities for students who do well with that approach. “It would be a really good conversation to have with the school district.”
In addition to delivering services and keeping in touch with youth and families during this time, fundraising has been another challenge for The Youth Council. Like many nonprofits, the organization relies on fundraising events, including a scavenger hunt in the summer and a bike ride in October. Fundraising events make up about 10% of The Youth Council’s budget, Arias said, but they’re still important.
“That helps us fill in the gaps in salary, make sure our heat runs… that kind of stuff,” she said. The council is planning socially-distanced spins on their normal fundraisers this year, and Arias hopes people will still participate.
Looking forward, Arias hopes that people in New Hampshire will recognize the importance of the work of organizations like The Youth Council. Right now, the country is at a unique moment in needing to support mental health and explore better options for the criminal justice system. The early intervention approach that The Youth Council takes fits both those needs.
“They’re seeing and predicting a continuing rise in mental health issues, so supporting those agencies that are really working hard to mitigate those challenges is critically important,” Arias said. “We need a more restorative approach: with balance, where people are held accountable for their behavior and are also supported, so they get the tools they need to make improvements in their own lives. That’s the only way we’re going to get over some of these challenges.”
This story is part of the 50 Businesses, 50 Solutions series, shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information or to be included, visit collaborativenh.org.