April 23, 2020 Category: Stories

How The Fresh Air Fund’s Year-Round Programs are Going Virtual

Founded in 1877 at the height of the tuberculosis epidemic in NYC, The Fresh Air Fund was part of the response. Throughout challenging times, our commitment to our mission and Fresh Air children only grows stronger.

As our Fresh Air students navigate uncertain times and shift to a “new normal” of remote learning, The Fresh Air Fund’s year-round Academic Enrichment and Leadership Programs – the Career Awareness Program (CAP), College Connections Program (CCP) and our Young Women’s Giving Circle (YWGC) continue to support students through virtual programming and creating opportunities to connect.

Career Awareness Program (CAP)

Many students in CAP take advantage of our weekly tutoring program which matches students with volunteer mentors. With the closure of all New York City Schools and more limited access to teachers, students are in even more need of academic support.

With both students and volunteers adjusting to new remote schedules, the Tutoring Program is launching online in phases – currently running once a week with many of the students and volunteers that already have been working together. Kayla Paulino, the Tutoring & High School Placement Coordinator, facilitates the program from 6 pm to 8 pm and creates breakout rooms for each pair to work together. Kayla then monitors each of the breakout groups and stays available for support.

“We have seen that with the connection and the relationship that students and volunteers have built, there has been a lot of productivity and collaboration since switching online,” Kayla says. “Typically the kids and volunteers are rushing from work or school. Now, they are focused and look forward to the time to connect.”

We’ve heard that participants are benefiting from the academic enrichment and also really look forward to simply connecting. Continuing the Tutoring Program virtually aims to give students some sense of normalcy because it’s been part of their routine since the beginning of the school year.

“I see the excitement of tutors, students and even family members. They’re so happy to be involved,” Kayla says. “Sometimes, I have pairs that are so invested that I have to remind them that the session is almost over.”

College Connections Program (CCP)

CCP provides students with support applying to college, and all the way through college graduation. Students participate in weekly mentoring sessions, workshops for financial literacy, SAT prep classes, college tours and more. Students look forward to the mentoring sessions where they have a safe and supportive space to speak with both their peers and their mentors.

Angela Bonato, College Connections Program Manager says, “I think the biggest concern for the students was CCP is a weekly routine for them and the routine they depend on was changing. It is a safe space for them to be able to express themselves and just be themselves.” They’ve been a part of the program for one, two or three years – and they really need it right now, when they have so many unanswered questions about what is going on.”

High school can be challenging on its own, but the crisis adds additional challenges that can weigh heavily on students thinking or transitioning into college. For high school seniors Louis and Ash,the end of senior year is looking completely different than what they had envisioned.

Louis said, “Recently we’ve been told that our senior year is practically over – we’re not going to have our prom, graduation or senior trip and it’s really disappointing.”

For the past few weeks, Angela has made virtual “office hours” available for students that are interested in speaking with her one-on-one regarding any help they may need and the weekly mentoring program has shifted online where they are continuing to work in small groups, guided by their mentors.

“My individual conference with Angela was really helpful – it felt really good to be supported while I’m at home,” Ash says. “I was wondering how my progress is going to be recorded and how I can connect with my CCP group. Thankfully talking to Angela made it a lot easier – at first I was worried, but then I felt support which was good.”

“Kids need a connection to their academic experience, and they need the stability and routine that it provides,” Maria Canales, a CCP Mentor says. “I think having the virtual component is critical to having that balance. I mentor 10th graders and everyone was present for our first virtual session – they’re eager to get back into their regular schedule and connect with friends and mentors.”

Young Women’s Giving Circle (YWGC)

Prior to the “new normal,” YWGC was meeting weekly, looking forward to their weekend retreat at camp and preparing for their Final Celebration in May.

YWGC Advisor Jailene Rodriguez shares, “The initial concern on our part was a timeline for our work. We didn’t know if staying at home and school closures were going to be lifted or if we needed to be thinking about a plan for more than a couple weeks.”

With the guidance of Fresh Air staff and the YWGC advisors, all Fresh Air alumni, the weekly program shifted to meeting virtually and within a short time, had their first ever Virtual Retreat – focusing on self-care, what it’s like to be a student at home during this time, tips to support each other and help transitioning to school online. Activities for the retreat included a scavenger hunt, learning how to make a facial scrub, watching a movie together, a cooking competition where the girls had to make something that changed color and even a virtual prom including a “pre-prom.”

“YWGC has a real sense of community,” YWGC Advisor, Carla Brown says. “I personally need it too, since this is severe isolation. This platform for us – talking about the highs and lows, the check-ins, is very significant because we’re getting a chance to hear updates from the girls directly about how they are doing.”

YWGC is focused on preparing for their Final Celebration – they are working hard to collaborate on creating flyers and designing workshops for their peers. The girls shared that working remotely is teaching them the importance of clear communication.

“They know that they have a goal at the end of this and they want to see their flyers get handed out, they want to see their workshop implemented. The girls have a sense ownership for their projects that they are working so hard for,” Carla said.

Throughout the years, the YWGC has created a space to foster relationships and connections that continues to bring strength to the alumni as they move forward and navigate this uncertainty together, and the older girls in the program act as mentors to the younger girls.

“It’s also all about accountability, too. It’s really important because the girls have been growing up with each other every summer for years and the program is an opportunity for them to support each other as they develop skills that they will need later on in life,” Jailene said.

Thank you to all of our volunteers that have helped us support so many of our Fresh Air children during this challenging time. Fresh Air child Louis shared “The Fresh Air Fund’s support has been great. It lets me know this situation won’t be forever and that The Fresh Air Fund will always be there for me.”