By Agency Staff
Over the past year, we have seen firsthand the devastating impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the 30,000 children and families we partner with, many living in communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the virus. The pandemic not only exacerbated the issues that our families already face—including poverty, chronic stress and mental health issues, food insecurity, and joblessness—but has layered on new challenges.
Some of the greatest family needs we’ve seen during the pandemic are connected to technology. There are not enough devices in the home to support all e-learners in one family. There is limited, or no internet/cell phone data packages to provide what is needed. There are also more families using food pantries than ever before. Children at home all day equates to larger food budgets. Additionally, we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of families needing rent and utility assistance and the amount of the requests are significantly higher.
Families are feeling extreme fatigue. They’ve experienced grief, loss and isolation during the pandemic. They are overwhelmed by the dual roles they are playing, as both parents and teacher assistants. Resources are stretched to the limit. Staff are partnering with families to address these stressors together. ~ Case Manager
With the support of donors, we are working with families, communities and advocates across the state to better address the many complex issues that have emerged and worsened due to the pandemic. Throughout the last year our programs have helped families in crisis by offering tablets, groceries, clothing, rent and utility assistance, bus passes, and other basic needs in effort to alleviate the immense economic strain caused by COVID-19. Additionally, we are providing virtual and safe in-person services when possible to continue the long-term work of strengthening children and families through mental health services, quality early education, violence intervention, and preventative family support programs like home visiting. Partnering with the families we serve, our staff also continues to lead the call for better public policies and practices that are rooted in equity given the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black and Brown communities.
Below are updates on how we are supporting families through our many programs.
Early Childhood Education
After closing completely for the first three months of the pandemic, our five early childhood centers returned to in-person learning in July 2020, following a reopening plan was designed in partnership with our families, health and education experts, and community leaders.
The children have adapted well to the changes created by COVID restrictions, with even our toddlers wearing masks and washing their hands frequently and maintaining their socially distant bubble. We made safety adjustments: No more sharing supplies––each child has their own art tools and playdough kit; and meals are no longer served family style. But learning continues as before. The children play outside, have circle time (using hula hoops to enforce their bubble!) and continue their learning through play, guided by our experienced teachers.
Children’s Home & Aid has literally been a life saver, especially during the pandemic. They’ve helped our family navigate online learning and people are always stopping by with gifts and goodies for the kids. We really feel supported. ~ Parent, Scott Early Learning Center
Parent Support Programs
Our 24/7 Crisis Nurseries in Rockford and Bloomington remained open throughout the pandemic to provide emergency childcare and support services for families in crisis, providing a lifeline of support to more than 300 children and their families facing homelessness, mental health issues, domestic violence, and other emergencies.
Home Visiting and Doula programs offered support for pregnant moms, who suddenly faced the possibility of delivering babies without a support person accompanying them during their labor and delivery. Workers attended births virtually, using iPads and FaceTime to be with moms so they wouldn’t go through the experience alone. These programs served a monthly average of 1,100 families across the state providing parenting support, as well as practical assistance such as diapers, wipes, infant formula and household supplies.
Behavioral Health and Violence Prevention
We continued to serve over 200 youth through school and community-based mental health services via telehealth platforms through our partnership with Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and other community agencies. Our staff continue to deliver groceries and help families stay connected online in a time of increased stress and mental health needs. As schools have gradually reopened, some are allowing our therapists back in for in-person sessions while others are continuing virtually.
Our Choose to Change youth violence prevention programming served 128 youth through virtual platforms for mentoring and group therapy. Last summer some Choose to Change youth participated in the “You Are Not Alone” project, which paired youth and seniors and gave youth the opportunity to create and record a memoir of the senior’s life virtually. CPS reports that youth are engaged at higher levels with Choose to Change programming compared to other services on their platform.
Youth continue to struggle with feelings of isolation and depression, but we’re starting to receive more calls for help. Maybe it’s because it’s warmer, maybe because there’s hope that the “end” of the virus is within reach, or maybe it’s because the problems they’ve silently been trying to work through are finally coming to the forefront and require more intervention than before. ~ Therapist
Foster Care Programs
We began the shelter-in-place with nearly 1,000 children in foster care across the state. The biggest challenge early on was slowdowns in court proceedings due to months-long court closures caused by the pandemic. This meant that some children who were ready to return home or have adoptions or guardianships finalized have been on hold. However, courts are now beginning to catch up and hearings are back to a normal schedule.
Like all families, our foster parents struggled with e-learning, loss of jobs and social and familial support due to COVID isolation. Children’s Home & Aid caseworkers visited in person (“porch” visits, socially distant, with masks) where possible, sometimes bringing treats or learning activities for the children and families. But the children really missed the face-to-face visits with their parents and siblings, and we are happy to say that family visits are once again taking place in our offices and outdoors, weather permitting.
Rice Child & Family Center
The Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Child & Family Center provides 24/7 residential treatment for children ages 7-14 who have suffered significant traumas and struggle with serious emotional and behavioral challenges. The Center remained open to serve the approximately 30 children at any given time throughout the pandemic. The children at Rice depend on routine, predictability and relationships with staff and peers to help them cope and heal. The last twelve months have been challenging for these boys and girls, with COVID cases impacting both staff and residents and causing periodic quarantines. Family visits transitioned from in-person to Zoom, and therapy continued both in person and through video calls.
Still, there is resilience. Rice staff were creative in helping children learn and heal through the pandemic. Individual wings of up to 10 children who live together have hosted cleaning challenges, spelling bees via Zoom, and a decorating contest at the holidays. Generous donors provided extra treats, games, art kits and electronics – items that help children cope with the challenges of being isolated from school and peers. Piven Theatre offered virtual hip-hop and improv classes to Rice children.
A milestone was reached this month when the Rice on-site school reopened, and the children were able to attend classes in person again, bring about some sense of normalcy. We look forward to the day when our kids’ schedules will once again be filled with school, family visits, skating parties, movie nights and all the normal activities that we all long for!
While the increased rollout of vaccinations is providing hope for a COVID-19 free future, the pandemic’s impact over the past year will be lasting even as we move into recovery and beyond. Children and families have experienced unimaginable loss that has impacted nearly every facet of their livelihood, and Children’s Home & Aid will remain dedicated to pursuing an aggressive resource development plan to continue supporting children and families now and well into recovery efforts.
The center is like a second home. It’s welcoming. I know I’m leaving my children somewhere safe and that they are well taken care of. During the pandemic, it has been comforting to feel like we’re not alone. Staff reached out to see how we’re doing as a family. We’re all in this together. ~ Parent, Community Child Care Center of Palatine Township
Now more than ever, funding is needed to maintain and expand our ongoing programs to ensure our families continue to receive the best possible care. Learn more about how you can support these efforts.
We extend our deepest thanks to all our donors who partner with us as we work toward our vision of Every Child. Every Family. Thriving.