During the height of the pandemic, stress was high in many St. Joseph County homes and kids felt it. Before COVID, school had been a kid’s escape from adult problems such as layoffs, rent, utilities, food insecurity and child care — but there was little relief once the virus came on the scene.
For nearly three semesters, between March 2020 and June 2021, most students attended school virtually or were in person just a couple of days a week. They craved time with other kids, learning and having fun.
This fact was not lost on leaders with the United Way of St. Joseph County (UWSJC) and local youth-serving organizations.
“Our children had spent so much time in their homes, on computers, isolated. We had a common goal to help these kids have the best summer they’ve ever had,” Laura Jensen, president and CEO of UWSJC, said.
The United Way awarded $200,000 to 19 area nonprofits for Hello Summer — a variety of free or low-cost, high-quality, COVID-safe programs for area kids.
“The goal of Hello Summer was to help children recover emotionally, socially and academically from the stress and deficits of the preceding year, ensuring every opportunity to gain ground and be ready to jump back into the next school year with increased energy and preparedness,” Jensen said.
“The RCLC was able to provide six weeks of programming, which is more than we would typically offer,” Jennifer Knapp Beudert, manager of the RCLC, said. “We had morning and afternoon programs for 96 youth. At RCLC we offered Shakespeare, youth development tutoring and enrichment, and preschool, and at the Notre Dame Center for Civic Innovation we offered a half-day World Explorers summer camp.”
The kids ranged in age from preschool to high school. They received targeted instruction in literacy, combined with STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) activities and projects involving arts and culture, music, filmmaking, problem solving and geography.
Jennifer Wittenbrink Ortega, director of the Early Childhood Program at RCLC, said a relationship with another United Way partner agency blossomed out of the summer preschool program.
“We partnered with Green Bridge Growers, which operates an aquaponic farm in the county, and we had weekly farmer visits. Our preschoolers learned about planting, germination, root systems and aquaponics,” she said. Green Bridge Growers provides skill-matched employment for underserved young adults on the autism spectrum, creating jobs in the field of aquaponics — an innovative and highly productive agricultural innovation," she said.
“With help from Green Bridge Growers, the children planted their own garden in the RCLC yard, which produced potatoes, greens, radishes and peppers. Green Bridge Growers gave us an aquaponic system and a red worm composting system. At one point we had 500 worms in the preschool, and Tuesday was composting day to feed the worms. We also got to go to the farm with our families,” Wittenbrink Ortega said.
In addition, Green Bridge Growers gave weekly bags of food to the families in the preschool, and has since grown the partnership by including the Northeast Neighborhood Council with the RCLC Preschool families.
One of the hallmarks of RCLC is that it serves families enrolled in the South Bend Community School Corp.’s English as a New Language classes.
“Out of the 20 preschoolers enrolled, we had 10 countries represented and children who spoke six different languages at home,” Wittenbrink Ortega said, “so it was exciting to see them learn words like ‘germination’ and to understand that sun, soil and rain were necessary ingredients for growing things. At the farm, families were able to go raspberry picking and to taste honey from their bees. It was a phenomenal summer.”
United Way-funded programs like these help local families get better footing and, eventually, thrive.
“We all live here,” Knapp Beudert said. “We should all want the best for our community, and the United Way has a strong track record of addressing needs. We all want to live in a thriving community, but a community can’t thrive if the people in it are not thriving.”
Jensen, the United Way president, said she longs for a day when everyone in St. Joseph County is thriving.
“My goal is for the United Way to no longer be needed,” she said. “If we were able to fix all of these inequities and create a sustainable community where everyone is succeeding, then what more would you want? But it’s going to take all of us doing that.”