When the kids couldn’t come to the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Twin Cities, the club came to them.
“At the end of the day, we’re all just trying to get through this,” said T.J. Valtierra, program director for the Little Earth Boys & Girls Club in Minneapolis, taking a break from boxes he was filling to deliver to his scattered club members.
Every Tuesday, Valtierra and his volunteers fill boxes of food — enough to feed a family of four for days — and deliver them to the doorsteps of about 75 families around the Little Earth neighborhood.
Tucked in with the meat, bread, fresh fruit and vegetables in the box are pages from coloring books, activity booklets, bingo cards for the neighborhood’s online game night — little reminders to his members that they’re still in the club, and their club misses them.
“If we can’t see them in person, at least we’ll make sure their basic need of eating and surviving is met,” Valtierra said. “We’ve been met with nothing but thankfulness.”
The 11 metro Boys & Girls Clubs offered thousands of youngsters a safe space to learn and play. Some club members come from unstable homes. Some are homeless. All get access to tutoring, mentorship, wellness programs, games, arts and crafts after school and over the summer.
Until the pandemic closed the doors.
“We Miss You So Much,” one family wrote on a colorful note posted on one of those closed club doors.
As the state shut down, club staff checked in with families. They found children trying to take online classes in homes without internet access; parents who had lost their jobs; parents were still working but had lost access to child care; households led by grandparents who took a risk every time they left the house to shop for groceries.
“People think we’re just a drop-in center,” said Shannon Mattson, vice president of development and communications for the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Twin Cities. “At our core, we’re an education program. We want kids with us from kindergarten through 12th grade, graduating on time with a plan for the future. That’s our mission.”
As the pandemic and shutdown stretched families to the breaking point, the clubs rushed to fill the gaps. For families without internet access, they found providers willing to offer it for free. For children who could no longer come in for a free meal after school, they boxed up enough food to feed entire families.
For some families, Valtierra said, a global pandemic barely registers as a traumatic event compared with everything else they’ve survived.
“People dying early. Sickness. Not knowing what’s going to happen next,” Valtierra said. “Some people, they’re born into that. It’s normal.”
Once they take care of the basics, club staff are doing what they can to make the coming pandemic summer interesting and enriching and safe.
Valtierra’s club serves children and teens in Little Earth, the heart of the Twin Cities’ American Indian communities. About half the people who live in the close-knit neighborhood are younger than 21.
The shutdown has meant online game nights, group chats, coloring contests, remote fitness challenges and Facebook installments of TRAIL, a nutrition and wellness program centered on Native traditions and spirituality.
Little Earth teens host a regular podcast, “Pride of the People.” In one recent episode, Valtierra interviewed Lola Lamont, a neighborhood elder who shared a Lakota prayer for a speedy end to the coronavirus, then told stories about her childhood on South Dakota’s Cheyenne River reservation.
“No McDonald’s, no fast food,” Lamont tells her interviewer, laughing on her side of the split screen as Valtierra asked what people did for fun on the reservation in those days.
“Nothing. There was nothing to do,” Lamont told her audience of bored, stuck-at-home students. “They’ve got so much better stuff nowadays. In our day, we had to do whatever we can, just to keep ourselves occupied.”
On Wednesday, Gov. Tim Walz announced new ground rules for summertime fun in the least-fun summer of recent memory.
Playgrounds are reopening. Parks departments are reinstalling hoops on the basketball courts. At some point, the clubs will resume small-group activities again.
For now, Valtierra said, “we have to meet the kids where they’re at.”
To help the Boys & Girls Clubs out, visit boysandgirls.org