As efforts to stop the spread of the coronavirus pandemic effectively shut down public education and socialization in mid-March, organizations such as the youth-based Stars nonprofit had to suddenly halt all its after-school programming and enrichment activities.
They knew, however, the low-income students and their families they typically serve would be hit hard by both the virus and the ripple effects of the resulting recession, and began a different kind of outreach.
“I used to say we were a low-income program, but now I say we’re a no-income program,” said Stars Associate Director Kurt Gibson, noting that nearly 70% of the heads of household for whom they provide outreach have been laid off.
After a survey of families revealed the majority were facing severe food insecurity as they increasingly tried to care for elderly family and neighbors, the Pasadena-based nonprofit’s leadership pivoted to provide a full scale food and grocery distribution. Now, after just five weeks, the organization is handling between 2.5 and 3 tons of food per week for up to 65 families or about 270 individuals, all of which is delivered to the homes.
Working with a dietician, the program worked to create a healthy meal plan with 50% of the food being fresh fruits and vegetables. Using social media platforms, the nonprofit found a way to connect the families and create weekly cooking challenges to help foster the familial relationships with enrichment activities.
“We want to treat this as an opportunity to thrive, not just survive, so we talk a lot about healthful food and we have activities like ‘Who can create the best healthy recipe?’ this week with the ingredients we passed out,” Gibson said. “Many of our families work in food prep, so they get pretty competitive about it and have a lot of fun. They all want to try each other’s food and they enjoy seeing what everyone else comes up with … and then of course, everyone is watching the Oaxacan family, to see what they’ll come up with.”
The sense of camaraderie and community developing among the families is just what Stars is looking for during these uncertain times. (“They have these group chats that I’ve had to turn off my notifications to, they talk all day long,” Gibson laughed.)
That community has helped motivate each other and also alert Stars leadership to those who might be falling ill with the virus. Many of the adults who have kept their jobs work in supportive services to “essential workers,” including at the senior care facilities in Pasadena, which have been hit hard by spread of the disease. Stars immediately stepped in to provide meal care for those families with a sick parent.
“We’ve had four family members who’ve tested positive, but thankfully they have all recovered,” said Stars Executive Director Nancy Stiles, adding that the resilience and support among the families for each other has been inspiring.
Gibson concurred, adding “I think by comparison, many of our families are doing well in this crisis environment because they are so resilient. No one knows how to make a meal go further than our families and there’s been a lot of really amazing things happening under their roofs.”
In addition to the meal service and grocery delivery, Stars realized early on that though the Pasadena Unified School District announced the continuation of its meal plan for pickup at “Grab and Go” school sites, intended for drive-thru only, the students without transportation weren’t receiving the meals. In response, Stars created a partnership with Collaborate PASadena and the Pasadena/Altadena Coalition of Transformative Leaders to deliver the PUSD meals directly to those families. As of this week, the nonprofit has delivered 23,058 meals, and by the end May, it estimates it will have delivered 46,386 meals.
The plan to pivot operations to full scale food delivery was, at first, just a simple way to continue its mission to provide advocacy for a community that “affirms, equips and emboldens young people to pursue a life of purpose, service and meaning,” Stiles said.
“At the beginning of this crisis we began by talking to our families, and wanted to make sure that if we were going to pivot operations that we pivot in the right direction,” she said. “Our mission and method is all based on relationships and interdependence, and because we care deeply we wanted to validate the relationships with our families and provide for some of their most basic needs.”
Stars has taken pride over the years in creating a community to support vulnerable youth and their families in Pasadena, providing tools to help them thrive academically, emotionally, economically and spiritually. Since 2001, Stars has reached more than a 1,000 area youth with tutoring, mentoring, counseling and multitier enrichment programs to help curb public school dropout rates and guide young people to complete post-secondary education.
While those traditional in-person support programs have been placed on hold, the nonprofit is creating online tutoring, an online summer enrichment program and continuing its mentorship program to support first-generation college students.
“Basically we want to figure out how to fail fast so we can come back strong in the fall,” Gibson noted dryly.
As to how long the nonprofit foresees distributing food, Gibson and Stiles both confirmed being committed to helping longer-than-foreseen. Aside from a “generous donor” and food donations, the Pasadena Community Foundation recently granted Stars funding to continue the services.
“What we are learning in our scenario planning is that we need to have some kind of food distribution plan indefinitely because we know the population we serve will disproportionately get COVID-19 and they will also be the first to be let go in the workplace,” Gibson said.
Stiles concurred, but added that the nonprofit’s community is beginning to see a way through this crisis, together: “All of our examples of those in need really point back to these incredible stories of resilience. It’s been humbling to see how they have come together and cared for each other.”