Jessica Millan hesitates to say her 6-year-old son, Noah, has a "normal life" these days but she said his experience with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Kern County comes pretty close.
She drops off Noah first thing in the morning at the club on Niles Street, where staff members guide him through his day of virtual learning at Stella Hills. In the afternoon, he often paints pictures for his mom in the club's art room. Sometimes there are dance challenges, and this is where her "ball of energy" shines. At the end of the day, he says goodbye to every staff member and all his friends, dragging it out because he doesn't want to leave.
Sure, his routine is punctuated by putting on a face shield, hand-washing and bouts of staff cleaning, but Millan said it comes close to giving him a sense of normalcy, and one he absolutely loves.
"They’re so good about welcoming the parent and the child and making sure you’re having a good day," she said.
Noah is one of 115 members who are currently on site at local clubs. That's counting the location on Niles where he attends, as well as sites in Stockdale and Lamont. He joined as a member shortly before the pandemic hit, and he has been attending continuously since then.
When the pandemic hit, the organization didn't shut down — it shifted.
"We couldn’t close our doors on our kids," said Juanita Recinos, program director for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Kern County.
It always served meals, but it ramped up distribution, offering them in places and at times that schools weren't. Now the organization is up to 4,200 meals a day. Even the physical clubs never really shut down. Some of the students on site were able to continue doing work with some extra safety precautions — and staff on site just pushed a lot of their programming into a virtual space.
"We’re like chameleons, we go with the flow and we kind of merge with whatever is going on," said Recinos.
When schools came back in session, the clubs switched gears again. The staff had long-running partnerships with school districts countywide offering after-school activities.
Returning to school sites in the same way wasn't possible this fall, but Chris Molina, director of operations and safety, said that because funding was flexible, staff were able to provide the services they would typical offer virtually. So staff have been offering after-school tutoring as well as the fun after-school programs the clubs were known for, but in a digital format.
"It’s pretty much everything that we used to do," said Recinos.
Right now 2,280 members from 55 school sites all around the county from Lake Isabella to Lamont to Frazier Park log on for virtual programs.
Members collaborate across the county on coding projects or making apps. Some of the older students mentor members as young as 6 or 7. The clubs even mailed out robot kits so that members could make something with their hands at home — something they might have done in-person. There are of course the virtual dance parties and virtual art lessons that Noah loves.
Now that schools are starting to bring more students back onto campus, the Boys & Girls Clubs are changing their offerings once again.
Bakersfield City School District has been bringing back small cohorts of homeless and foster youth onto school campuses where they complete their distance learning in a quiet, safe and secure environment with a reliable WiFi connection and an adult who can offer guidance. It's the kind of relationship that members like Noah get every day, except these students will be at a school instead of a club.
Staff members at the Boys & Girls Clubs will be facilitating some of those cohorts. Every school opening will be getting an additional staff member.
"We recognized the need for additional help at our sites," said BCSD Deputy Superintendent Mark Luque.
It's not just about having an adult in the room, but one they trust, said Molina.
"We know how important it is to have a connection with the mentor," he said.
Millan said the resources the Boys & Girls Clubs offer go beyond what they offer to the young members. Staff has helped her find an eye doctor for her son when looking seemed daunting, listened to her on stressful days and passed along an extra box of food that has come in handy for her household.
"They’re even there for the parents during this wonderful year of 2020," she laughed.