A Young Voice for Youth During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Posted November 30, 2020
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Kayla Powell

After aging out of Iowa’s fos­ter care sys­tem when she grad­u­at­ed from high school, Kay­la Pow­ell received after-care sup­port ser­vices through the Amer­i­can Home Find­ing Asso­ci­a­tion that helped her stay on track for self-suf­fi­cien­cy. After express­ing con­cerns about aspects of the fos­ter care sys­tem, such as not being able to have sleep­overs with her friends, Pow­ell was asked by her after-care work­er if she want­ed to do some­thing about it. Yes, I would love to,” she replied.

Referred to the Youth Pol­i­cy Insti­tute of Iowa — a net­work site of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Jim Casey Youth Oppor­tu­ni­ties Ini­tia­tive® — she learned about and attend­ed the Foundation’s 2015 Youth Lead­er­ship Insti­tute (YLI) to receive train­ing in lead­er­ship and advo­ca­cy skills. An annu­al inten­sive week­long gath­er­ing, YLI pre­pares young peo­ple from the Jim Casey Initiative’s net­work of 17 sites for lead­er­ship roles in advanc­ing child wel­fare poli­cies and prac­tices that more effec­tive­ly meet the needs of young peo­ple tran­si­tion­ing from fos­ter care to adult­hood. From that expe­ri­ence, she decid­ed to become a Jim Casey Young Fel­low to work with Casey’s nation­al team to help inform its nation­wide efforts to improve out­comes for youth tran­si­tion­ing from fos­ter care to adulthood.

As a Jim Casey Young Fel­low who con­sults for Casey and oth­er orga­ni­za­tions, Pow­ell recent­ly joined Iowa’s Depart­ment of Human Rights after near­ly sev­en years as the youth and fam­i­ly pro­grams coor­di­na­tor at the Ottumwa Fam­i­ly YMCA. In this inter­view, she dis­cuss­es her work with youth at the Ottumwa Y” dur­ing the ear­ly months of the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic and her cur­rent role in state government.

Q: What did you do for Ottumwa YMCA?

Pow­ell: I was doing com­mu­ni­ty-based work in a low-income area of rur­al Iowa. As the YMCA’s youth and fam­i­ly pro­gram coor­di­na­tor, I focused on youth devel­op­ment and equi­ty and inclu­sion. When COVID hit, the gov­er­nor declared that all gyms had to close, includ­ing the fit­ness and recre­ation pro­grams at YMCAs. We could still offer our com­mu­ni­ty pro­gram­ming, and we real­ized there would be unmet needs for youth in our com­mu­ni­ty. The first thing that came to mind was the lack of access to sup­port­ive adults and peers and the lack of access to food. With the schools closed and a major­i­ty of our stu­dents receiv­ing free or reduced-price lunch, there was a real con­cern about youth get­ting fed.

Q: What was your response?

Pow­ell: I had good rela­tion­ships with­in the com­mu­ni­ty already, so I texted the super­in­ten­dents of the two school dis­tricts in our area. This issue was on their radar, too, and they appre­ci­at­ed that the YMCA was reach­ing out to help. With the par­tic­i­pa­tion of local non­prof­its, busi­ness­es and vol­un­teers, the Y estab­lished an emer­gency food dis­tri­b­u­tion pro­gram for chil­dren and youth, ages 218. Start­ing on March 23, we served pack­aged meals to over 1,000 youth a day.

Q: What role did authen­tic youth engage­ment play in the emer­gency youth meal program?

Pow­ell: At first, and much like com­mu­ni­ties across the coun­try, the idea was to dis­trib­ute meal pack­ages just twice a week. Some of the oth­er peers and I have expe­ri­ence with child­hood hunger, and we didn’t think this was a great idea. It’s not how hunger works. If you give young peo­ple four days of food, that food is going to be gone the next day, and they are going to be hun­gry on the fol­low­ing days. Based on that con­ver­sa­tion, the YMCA decid­ed to dis­trib­ute meals twice a day, every day. We did home deliv­er­ies, too, for par­ents and chil­dren who were unable to access the dis­tri­b­u­tion locations.

Q: What did you do to main­tain con­nec­tions with youth in the community?

Pow­ell: Every day we sent out a two-page newslet­ter called the Y Street Jour­nal. It includ­ed activ­i­ties — the work­out of the day,” puz­zles and such. We asked ques­tions to check in on young people’s emo­tions — for exam­ple, What is your day on a scale of 15 (1 being the worst day ever and 5 being the best day ever)? Why? What could make it bet­ter?” If they returned the newslet­ter with answers, they received a lit­tle prize. The Y Street Jour­nal was one way that we were engag­ing youth and also sub­tly tak­ing the pulse on how they were doing in their homes. We were able to flag young peo­ple we had con­cerns about and reach out to them.

Q: What are you doing for Iowa’s Depart­ment of Human Rights?

Pow­ell: Half of my job is over­see­ing the Nation­al Youth in Tran­si­tion Data­base (NYTD), which col­lects data on old­er youth in fos­ter care. Doing sur­veys of 17-year-olds, I was check­ing in on what they need­ed. Most of them were OK, because they were still in the sys­tem. If they need­ed some­thing, I con­nect­ed them with ser­vices or sup­port. I also over­see the social media accounts — Insta­gram, Face­book, Twit­ter — for NYTD’s work in Iowa. I scroll through the news feeds to see if youth need any­thing. If there was some­thing trou­bling, we would reach out and offer services.

The oth­er half of my job is coor­di­nat­ing youth devel­op­ment work, mak­ing sure that state agen­cies are using pos­i­tive youth devel­op­ment and authen­tic youth engage­ment in their work. I also over­see the Iowa Col­lab­o­ra­tion for Youth Devel­op­ment (ICYD), which includes rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the pub­lic sys­tems serv­ing the state’s youth. ICYD is form­ing two youth action squads — one for COVID-19 and anoth­er for racial jus­tice. The facil­i­ta­tors for the squads are three cur­rent Depart­ment of Human Rights pro­gram youth. We will be pro­vid­ing lead­er­ship oppor­tu­ni­ties and com­pen­sa­tion for the 25 mem­bers of each squad, using a racial equi­ty lens in pub­lic pol­i­cy advo­ca­cy and an under­stand­ing of data and research. We are going to con­vene youth who typ­i­cal­ly have not had lead­er­ship roles before and who are mar­gin­al­ized from gov­ern­ment or lead­er­ship because of dis­crim­i­na­tion and have been his­tor­i­cal­ly exclud­ed from deci­sion-mak­ing. We also inten­tion­al­ly are recruit­ing youth from the NYTD pop­u­la­tion who have had expe­ri­ence with the child wel­fare and juve­nile jus­tice sys­tems. After their train­ing, we’ll empow­er all 50 youth in both squads to devel­op an action plan address­ing either their local com­mu­ni­ties or the state.

Q: Any final thoughts on the impact of COVID-19 on the sys­tems serv­ing young people?

Pow­ell: In sum­ming up COVID, either adults in the sys­tem showed up or they didn’t. Some suc­cess­ful­ly made the men­tal-mod­el shift from blam­ing kids to col­lab­o­rat­ing with them. For exam­ple, before the pan­dem­ic, some case­work­ers had been get­ting on their youth about, Why aren’t you going to school? Why are you treat­ing your fos­ter par­ents dis­re­spect­ful­ly?” — things like that. When COVID first hit, they were more like, What do you need?” And then we as a com­mu­ni­ty did every­thing we could to meet those needs. I wish this shift to a cul­ture of col­lab­o­ra­tion could stick around for­ev­er, but I don’t think it will. I’ve already seen instances of going back to the old men­tal model.

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