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Here are descriptions from the staff on what their focus was, in addition to daily counseling, during the quarantine period.
Arts and volunteerism were the avenues I used to engage students during the COVID-19 school closure. Art projects have long been a way Pathways has engaged students in clubs and summer camp and are a powerful way to cope in distressing times. I reached out to the owner of a local painting studio (closed as a "nonessential business") and worked with her to develop a plan to conduct Zoom painting sessions with our students. This proved so popular with the first group of students in mid-April that we ended up doing it again with a second group a month later. The idea caught on and soon Pathways had groups at the middle school and the South Plainfield HS locations doing this activity as well. This was a win all around, helping students as well as a local business struggling during the time of closure.
Next, I reached out to the Central Jersey Arts Coalition, with whom Pathways has partnered in the past. They offered to fund several virtual arts programs, including Origami conducted from Carteret's Blazing Star Cultural Arts Center. They also funded a session for our students with New York City-based artist Ben Ponte, who led students on a "Drawn From Within" mindful drawing session, as well as a workshop with poet James Ellerbe in which the artist and students created poetry and spoken word together.
In two months, we organized five arts sessions over Zoom for more than 50 participants. These arts activities helped the students relax and let go in some instances, and in others, helped them connect with their own feelings as well as share with others feeling similar angst.
Pathways has always had two clubs in which volunteering has provided a healthy outlet. With the closure, we sought a way for students to continue doing rewarding work as well as stay connected with us and one another. Along that vein, we created a Virtual Volunteers Group. We brought this group of eight highly involved students together regularly via Google Meet. This allowed them an avenue to come together as well as hone their leadership skills in discussing campaigns that could be done from home. They worked together to come up with two letter-writing campaigns, and the Pathways Google Classroom was invited to participate. There was an incredible response: 20 students wrote beautiful letters of comfort and support to Senior Citizens. These sweet letters were sent out to two nursing home facilities, photocopied and shared many times over throughout the facilities. When it was suggested to write letters of gratitude to healthcare workers, again, 20 heartfelt letters were composed that were delivered to healthcare workers on the frontlines at two NJ hospitals. These volunteer efforts provided Pathways students with avenues for meaningful social connection as well as the rewarding feeling of having lifted another's spirits.
Our most recent efforts have been aimed at promoting a contest entitled QuaranTEENed, Apart but Not Alone, run by Empower Somerset in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month. We invited Pathways students and the school at large to share their experiences in quarantine. We personally reached out to engage as many students as possible in this valuable effort. We are proud to report that a highly involved Pathways student was a Regional Winner! Further, we had 14 contestants from CHS (the majority of whom were Pathways students). We have announced our own contest among the remaining CHS entries, in order to support and reward the tremendous effort that went into producing entries that creatively shared ways to cope and support others having a difficult time.
During the school closure, I came up with two creative ways to engage the students of Carteret High school. The first thing I created was a group called "Feel Good Friday" which met twice a month on Zoom. The purpose of this group was to strengthen social connections during virtual learning and embrace the good vibes of Friday and making it through another week. In total, I was able to engage nine students. We discussed numerous topics, which included but were not limited to, music as a healthy coping tool and songs that lifted student's mood. We discussed positive things COVID-19 taught us like cherishing moments with our loved ones. Students were taught mental health awareness education and how-to bring awareness to their peers and how to use their voice. Lastly, we discussed summer plans and what students were looking forward to.
The second thing I created was "Mo's Motivation," an Instagram TV series that had four episodes and gained over 355 views. The topics included were, "not being okay" and following your own path, mental health awareness and encouragement, the benefits of exercise and the positive impact it has on your mental health, and lastly end of the year motivation.
The Gender Sexuality Alliance (GSA) club was continuously active during this year's school closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Its committed group members met weekly to discuss and plan creative ways for the GSA to maintain its presence while school took place online. The club created multiple videos, which have garnered hundreds of views thus far, to help spread awareness towards initiatives such as GLSEN's National Day of Silence, and NJ's Pride month.
As New Jersey began to loosen its restrictions on public gatherings/events, members of the GSA were once again invited to speak during this year's Pride flag raising event in Carteret. Members collaborated with one another to create speeches that spoke on inclusivity, freedom, acceptance, intersectionality, remembrance, and personal experience within the community during these stressful times. Perhaps the most important role this club played during our remote learning period was giving its members a feeling of belongingness and a sense of togetherness. The weekly meetings served as a support group for many GSA participants that helped create a sense of stability during the course of this global quarantine. To watch this group function as a facilitator over the last few months has been a humbling experience that helped me redefine how I once interpreted resiliency.
And while all of this was happening, Karen was reaching out to all of our kids who came in for recreation before school closed and checking in on a regular basis. She also answered the Pathways cell phone, arranging virtual appointments and offering support to anyone who called.
We are about to embark on the journey of virtual summer program. Taking these valuable lessons about bringing youth together for a sense of belonging and giving them something to look forward to. The summer program will include team building and games, workshops including song writing, coping with stress, future planning, self care, baking, skin care and more virtual arts and trips.