Pandemic pivot

ABACUS is HCF’s initiative to engage middle-schoolers and increase the likelihood that they will graduate and go on to postsecondary education. At Boys and Girls Club of Hamilton, it means providing the experiences and supports to spark kids’ interest in learning and help them achieve their educational dreams.

Like all programs at the club, ABACUS creates a space where young people want to be. “That’s our secret sauce,” says assistant executive director, Duane Dahl. “Members feel safe to try something new because it’s low commitment. No one tells them they have to come.”

In March 2020, in-person gathering was restricted and all the tried-and-true ways to connect and engage with young people disappeared overnight. Staff scrambled to reinvent the program, constantly figuring out new ways to connect, especially with those they hadn’t seen. The kids’ mental health and well-being were paramount.

A twice-weekly after-school drop-in moved online. Mentoring now takes place by phone, on Instagram, during meet ‘n’ greets in local parks, private chats on Zoom and curbside pickups of pre-made dinners and grocery cards. Field trips are now virtual, including a workshop for middle-school girls with musician Queen Cee, a special event with international TikTok star Notorious Cree and a virtual meetup with youth from the Montréal Boys and Girls Clubs.

Recognizing that ABACUS programming deals with a vulnerable group, HCF enabled grantees to redirect funding to meet the challenges posed by COVID-19. At the Boys and Girls Club, this meant food security, connection and community took precedence over academics.

“We started the food program because we wanted the kids to know we weren’t going anywhere,” says manager of community services and programs, Heather Steeves. “You don’t have to join a virtual program for us to care about you and support you with what you need.”

“HCF trusted us to meet the needs that were being presented,” Duane says. “We’re providing direct supports like grocery cards, meals and school supplies, because we’re those trusted adults when families don’t know where else to turn.”

“Knowing this program still exists, even though it doesn’t look the same, that staff are there who care, it’s never been needed more than now.” – Heather Steeves, Boys and Girls Club of Hamilton