Youth Programs During COVID-19

Co-ops meet the challenge of canceled youth programs

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted all aspects of our professional and personal lives to some measure. Perhaps the greatest upheavals and challenges have been within families with children still in the household. Many parents who have been working through the pandemic have had to hold down a job under these unprecedented circumstances AND be stay-at-home parents to monitor and care for children during e-learning days when schools were closed to in-person classes and pre-school and daycare facilities also closed.

The same was true for Indiana’s electric cooperatives. While electricity was kept flowing despite moratoriums on bill collecting, office closures, the challenges of employees working remotely, and the like, many of our youth programs had to be canceled. Two of our largest statewide outreach programs for youth — Touchstone Energy Camp at Camp Tecumseh for incoming seventh graders and the Youth Tour to Washington, D.C., for incoming high school seniors — had to be canceled for June 2020. Neither will take place in 2021, as well.

So, what to do in the meantime while the usual programs are on hiatus or in limbo? To make sure those connections with youth, siblings and their parents are not dropped during the pandemic, cooperatives around the state have had to pivot. Some took existing programs online and enhanced them; some replaced existing program experiences with similar “socially distanced” versions; and some created new youth programs that could pass the pandemic protocols.

CHALLENGE

  • Maintain youth engagement during the pandemic when traditional methods were forced to change or were canceled.
  • Continue to educate the younger generation about what a co-op is and how it’s fundamentally different despite the loss of the traditional programs.
  • Maintain the continuity of co-op youth engagement for the upcoming age groups.

SOLUTION

  • Clark County REMC Coloring Contest. Youth were invited to enter a coloring contest with “Be a Safety Hero” subject. Works were divided into different age groups.
  • Hendricks Power Cooperative Camp-in-a-Box. Youth selected before the canceled June 2020 Indiana Touchstone Energy Camp were surprised with a box of with educational, camp-related and fun items to make up for missing camp.
  • Kankakee Valley REMC Santa in a Bucket Truck. Hosted an event for kids to safely see and engage with Santa Claus. Children could drop off a letter to Santa and receive a candy cane from him via a long chute.
  • NineStar Connect Online CoderDojo. Classes the cooperative hosted in person at its educational/community center were moved seamlessly online.
  • Whitewater Valley REMC Junior Achievement Online Career Fair. Through its existing relationship with Junior Achievement, the REMC participated in a live regional virtual event that allowed the cooperative to promote its brand, culture and career opportunities.

RESULTS

  • Students continued learning various subjects and skills, from writing computer code to learning about electrical wiring and transmission to the cooperative business model, that they had been learning in person.
  • Students continued learning about career opportunities important to help encourage youth to stay in their local rural communities.
  • Students — and their parents — maintained engagement with their cooperative so they could see the cooperative means it when it speaks of community commitment.
  • Students may continue telling younger classmates about the youth-engagement programs their co-op provided to them.
  • Parents and the communities at large have thanked the cooperatives for their various roles in making these programs and events possible during these very hard times for everybody.

CLARK COUNTY REMC: COLORING CONTEST

Clark County REMC has always celebrated October’s National Cooperative Month with daily or weekly events and giveaways at its office. But since the pandemic hit in March 2020, its lobby has remained closed.

Not to be daunted by the challenges of the pandemic, when October 2020 came around, the cooperative came up with new ways to celebrate that kept social distancing. Adults were asked to submit short stories about any positive REMC encounter. For kids, something “heroic” was created.

Jessica Miller, communications specialist, said they found a superhero coloring page from SafeElectricity.org and asked children ages 5-15 to color and submit their artwork by the end of October. The page included the outline of superhero and asked kids to create their own superhero and list five things that made them a “safety superhero.”

The cooperative held a coloring contest for May’s Electrical Safety Month back in 2010. “This sparked an idea to do something similar during the month of October,” Miller said.

“It was important to us to do something fun that our youth could safely participate in and give them something to do while e-learning or attending in-person learning,” she said. “It was a different way for us to engage with our youth than our normal yearly programs.”

The coloring page was delivered to consumers in Clark’s edition of the October Indiana Connection magazine. It was printed on a thick cardstock paper as an insert so it was easy to detach and color. There was also a quarter-page section for the child’s information to be included. The back of the coloring page included cooperative month “fill-in-the-blanks” about National Cooperative Month from NRECA. Clark County also promoted the contest on social media, its website, bill insert, and in an email blast.

The age groups were: 5-7; 8-10; 11-13; 14-15. One winner was selected from each of the four divisions. Each winner received a “thank you” letter and a “congratulations” letter along with a $25 VISA gift card. Ten runners-up were mailed a $10 gift card to a local ice cream store. Winners were selected the first week of November.

Though the number of entries was fewer than hoped, the students who won were excited and appreciative their artwork was published in the December issue of the magazine. Miller said they are already looking forward to holding another coloring contest and hope to double the number of entries.

“I get a lot of positive feedback from our students who have participated in our youth programs or have received scholarships,” Miller said. “The programs we have in place really do make a difference in these students’ lives. I’m proud to be a part of an organization that provides opportunities like this to our youngest members. This pandemic hit quickly and has caused us to do things we have never done before. I think it has given us the opportunity to get more creative in our programs and events, which I feel has added some fresh outlooks on things we do for the future.”

HENDRICKS POWER COOPERATIVE: CAMP-IN-A-BOX

Hendricks Power Cooperative was smoothly sailing along with its youth programs as usual in March of 2020. It had seven area youth selected for the annual Touchstone Energy Camp at YMCA Camp Tecumseh in June. The kids and their parents had been called. Everyone was excited. Then came the first bumps of COVID, the rapidly expanding whitewater, and finally the big rock that overturned the canoes and left everybody stranded. Camp was canceled.

“We still wanted to do something for the kids,” said Dana Cochran, director of marketing and member engagement at Hendricks Power. “We wanted to acknowledge them and give them a little perk for the summer since they didn’t get to go to camp. We wanted to do something to let them know we were still thinking about them.”

What Cochran and Emily Hammell, communications manager, came up with was along the lines of: “If you can’t take kids to the camp, take camp to the kids.” They created “Camp-in-a-Box” as a replacement for the real camp experience the youngsters were missing out on.

“The kiddos had finished their last bit of school at home going into summer. We were hoping this would lift their spirits a little and give them something exciting,” Cochran said.

Items in their Camp-in-the-Box included:

  • A pop-up two-person tent
  • An electric circuit board kit
  • S’mores kit
  • Sidewalk chalk spray paint kit
  • Water balloon kit
  • Beach towel
  • LED camp lantern
  • LED water bottle
  • Other miscellaneous fun items — carabiner, compass, hard hat, ice pack, pen, hand sanitizer, die cast bucket truck
  • Energy efficiency/safety activity booklets
  • Build-a-bucket-truck construction activity
  • Lineman sticker activity sheet

Cochran estimates each box cost the cooperative a similar amount to what Hendricks Power would have spent to send the seven students to the four-day, three-night camp. With the items, they tried to match some of the things the kids would have experienced at camp — minus the horseback riding, ziplining and occasional poison ivy or chigger bite. She noted the electric circuit board kit is a real educational tool, and the tent is something they can actually use camping in the future. “

Camp is a great experience, she added. “They get to do their swimming and canoeing, horseback riding and meet other kids from all over the state. Then, in addition to that, there is the electrical aspect. There is the safety aspect. There is the efficiency aspect. There is the cooperative difference model that’s touched on. There’s a little bit of government regulation that’s touched upon. The kids do remember this over the years.”

Hammell noted that importance to have that continuity so students who have experienced the camp or any program can pass on the word-of-mouth testimonial to younger students.

In July, Cochran and Hammell called the parents of the seven and said they would be coming by with the surprise. Cochran said it was almost like Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes when they pulled up in their cooperative-branded Tesla and bearing the gift. She said even the neighbors took notice. It then gave them to chat with the parents, maintaining social distancing. “We’re assuming the parents of these kids are in that age group, the demographic, we’re trying to reach,” Cochran said. “They are part of the group we don’t have a lot of interaction with, so it was a time for us to actually get to engage with that demographic of people as well.”

With the uncertainties surrounding how the virus may still be around in June, the decision to cancel the Touchstone Energy Camp for 2021 has already been made. But Hendricks Power is now better prepared for Plan B. “We’ll start earlier this year just because we know what’s happening,” Cochran said, “We’ll make it even bigger this year … extend it to a larger group of kids. It’s important to stay in front of them because they are our future.”

KANKAKEE VALLEY REMC: SANTA IN A BUCKET TRUCK

The pandemic brought an end or a postponement to many traditions throughout 2020. Right before Thanksgiving, the one that began weighing the heaviest on Amanda Steeb, director of marketing and communications at Kankakee Valley REMC, was personal. How would her 7-year-old son, Noah, have his traditional visit on Santa’s lap at a time of social distancing?

“As a mom, I was trying to figure out the best way for my son to experience Santa. I was wanting to make sure, number one, we kept him safe. We prepared him that he might not get to see Santa, and, in time, he was OK with that.”

Then driving to work one morning, she said it just occurred to her: “If I am wrestling with the Santa experience, other parents must be, too!”

When she got to the office, she corralled Dave Howell, facilities manager and member services, and Robin Pederson, marketing and communications coordinator. Kankakee Valley participates in a myriad of community events throughout the year, but it had never done anything really special for Christmas before. They put their socially-distanced heads together to see if there was anything the cooperative could do to bring Santa safely to town.

What Kankakee Valley came up with was kind of a reality hybrid of two popular kiddie board games that bridge multiple generations: Candy Land and Chutes and Ladders. First came the idea of putting Santa in a bucket truck. Then the enterprising trick-or-treat candy distribution systems people concocted — like candy chutes and ziplines from second-story windows to the sidewalk — that flooded social media at Halloween came to mind.

“From that point,” Steeb said, “it became, ‘Hey, let’s put a red carpet in front of the candy chute and really make it kind of a real elegant kind of fun unique event. It was definitely a team effort and a cooperatively developed idea. We then divided up different tasks and quickly got to work.”

Large candy canes, 10-inches long, were purchased from a mom and pop candy shop. Howell created the chute for the canes made from white 4-inch PVC pipe, 22-feet-long, and wrapped in swirling red painter’s tape to look like a giant candy cane itself.

They chose the Lakes of the Four Seasons neighborhood for the event held one night in the second week of December. Kankakee Valley is the sole electricity supplier for the community of about 3,000 homes which straddles the Lake-Porter county line. Steeb said they knew all the participants would be REMC consumers.

She said the Lakes’ property-owners association welcomed the idea and the REMC with open arms. The bucket truck was set up in the public parking lots near restaurants in the middle of the community. All social-distancing requirements were followed and everyone wore a face mask.

Families kept their distance from one another in line; approached and stopped by a mailbox to drop off a letter to Santa; then stepped over to the red carpet and gathered their candy cane Santa had just dropped down the chute. Santa’s bucket, raised just off the back of the truck, was adorned with a wreath and the truck was decorated with Christmas lights, too.

As a final touch, Howell and Santa, portrayed by Eric Duttlinger, director of metering for the cooperative, each carried a handheld radio. As the next family would approach the mailbox, Howell would get the child’s name. As the family then walked to the red carpet to receive the candy cane, Howell would relay the child’s name to Santa. The joy and surprise of both the child and the parents every time Santa called down to the child by name was both hilarious and heartwarming, Steeb said.

“We had such a great turnout and such great feedback,” Steeb said. “We just felt it was time to break away from more of the online programs and just get out there. People wanted to get out. You talk about engaging with our members right where they are, we were right where they were. They couldn’t miss us.

“A lot of people think of their electric cooperative as ‘This is where I get my power from,’ and that’s where it stops. Little things like this make us more than just an electric provider. Yeah, that’s our sole purpose, that is who we are. But we do so much more. It’s these types of events that put us on the map, and it really capitalizes on being a part of the community, and we care about our youth. It’s all of that together.”

Some 350 youth, from babies and toddlers up to grade-schoolers, visited Santa at the Lakes of the Four Seasons. The event was so successful, Kankakee Valley staged an encore at Morgan Elementary School in Valparaiso the last day before winter break. Another 380 youngsters, including Steeb’s own first-grader, gleefully waved to Santa at the surprise visit and took away a candy cane.

Steeb noted Kankakee Valley purchased a Santa suit with the idea this may become a new annual event. “It was such a unique setup and such a different way for kids to see Santa and engage with Santa that I think this could become a tradition. The kids are going to remember getting a candy cane from Santa down a chute from a bucket truck. Every element of that is a memory for them.”

She said engaging with youth is a critical function of the co-op. And, as with Santa, the age didn’t matter. “It’s still that opportunity with them. We saw this as a memorable and unique experience for not only the youth — but also the parents to connect with our cooperative.”

After school that day, Noah told his mom he thought it was pretty cool that her work let Santa drive one of their trucks to visit the schools. He asked, “So, Mom, did Santa himself call your work phone and ask you for help in coming to see us. Or does he have a secretary or something? Were you nervous talking to him? He is pretty important you know.”

“As adults, Christmas really becomes a stressful time of year,” Steeb added, especially in the year of the pandemic. “Being a part of bringing this joy to the children — and adults — was a way for all of us to come together and celebrate the magic through the eyes of these kids. It was quite possibly the best day of the year for me personally.”

NINESTAR CONNECT: ONLINE CODER DOJO

NineStar Connect began hosting CoderDojo classes at its community entrepreneurial meeting/working center, called Idea Co-op, in March 2018, as a way to encourage interest and possible careers in technology.

CoderDojo is a global volunteer/grassroots-led program offering computer programming workshops for young people between ages 7 and 17. NineStar Connect partnered with the TechPoint Foundation For Youth, which wanted to open more CoderDojo classes in rural areas. The Foundation provided NineStar Connect with 10 Chromebooks and an instructor to offer the classes free of charge every month at the Idea Co-op facility. NineStar Connect donated additional refurbished laptops so all students could have a computer to use during class if they didn’t have their own.

Jill Snyder, director of business and economic development at NineStar Connect who helped open the center, noted the instructors who taught the courses were absolutely outstanding. Pre-COVID, when classes were held in-person, they were limited to 20 students. The training room could hold about 30 people, Snyder noted, so between class attendees and parents/guardians the room was full.

When the pandemic came, the classes immediately moved to an online format. “I think we may have missed only one class,” Snyder said. With the online classes, she noted the cooperative no longer has to set up the room or process student registrations. All it does now is promote the classes using NineStar Connect’s and Idea Co-op’s social media. In-person classes have not resumed.

While the attendance for online classes has been lower than the in-person classes, Snyder noted, “It’s very important that we keep having them and keep students engaged. What is neat about CoderDojo is that if a student only attends one class, they now have the knowledge and links to go online and keep doing lessons, which are all very fun, on their own. Many students do this, whether or not the classes are in-person or online.”

Whether taught in person or online, such classes are important to NineStar Connect, Snyder noted. “It’s all about reinvesting in our community. We also wanted to make sure every child has the opportunity to explore technology and get to feel comfortable with it, as well as enjoy it. It’s a great career path that should not be overlooked out of fear of the unknown or that ‘it’s too hard,’” she said. “This class removes all those barriers. There are thousands of tech jobs in Indianapolis and surrounding areas that go unfilled because of a lack of talent, and that talent can be outsourced to rural Indiana. And with a good internet connection, many of these jobs can be, and are, done remotely.”

The feedback the cooperative has received related to these classes has all been positive, she noted. “Parents/guardians often express how thankful they are we offer these classes and teach the students about technology. There have also been students in the class that have a range of learning disabilities, and it’s gratifying to see how well they do in this class. Technology has a way of leveling the playing field for everyone. Early on we had a young student who could not read, but by the end of his first class, he was coding.”

WHITEWATER VALLEY REMC: JUNIOR ACHIEVEMENT ONLINE INSPIRE CAREER FAIR

Like many cooperatives, Whitewater Valley REMC had a longstanding relationship with Junior Achievement. Currently, CEO Mary Jo Thomas is a member on the local Junior Achievement board and several other employees have volunteered in classrooms and participated in past fundraising events.

“We are passionate about the work that JA does to partner and collaborate with our schools to bring market-based economics and entrepreneurship education to area students,” said Melody Lynch, director of human resources and special projects at the REMC

When Thomas heard the reports from last year’s in-person career fair in Cincinnati, she was impressed and saw the possibilities of such an event helping Indiana electric cooperatives share the story of cooperative career opportunities. The challenge was to create such an event in Indiana similar to Ohio’s. Then COVID hit. But Lynch said a silver lining was found amid the horrible virus. That was the virtual opportunities – and the virtual platform for 2021’s Inspire that was developed.

“We saw this as a fantastic opportunity to reach a large number of students to be a future employer that students remember,” Lynch said. “We can promote our brand, culture and opportunities to grow our talent pipeline.”

Whitewater Valley was invited to participate by its local JA organization in December. Lynch began working with Ann Mears, the youth and partnership development manager for IEC, throughout January 2021 to bring cooperative careers to the students in grade 9-12 participating. More than 20,000 students from 55 schools from throughout the eastern southern half of Indiana and western southern half of Ohio and into Kentucky registered for the Feb. 9 event. The students have access to the virtual platform for three months. In prior years, the events were held live at a convention center, as was 2020’s in Cincinnati. The usual number of registrants was around 10,000 students.

“What is so exciting is all students who participate in JA Inspire will have access to all of the content for three months following the virtual expo,” Lynch added. “They have created this virtual trade show using video-game-inspired graphics to point and click through the exhibitor booths. The students will be able to unlock company and career information and save that to a virtual swag bag ‘backpack.’

“We are all learning new ways of reaching our communities,” Lynch added. “This has created another avenue to reach even more students.”

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