Bracing for Impact: Evaluating youth development programs in the new normal

March 20, 2023

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Lately I’ve been hearing the voice of Ross Gellar in my head an awful lot. While he had many great lines over the seasons of the TV show Friends, there is one scene in particular that feels really relatable right now. That’s what this pandemic has felt like as a non-profit leader. Plenty of pivot while trying to navigate this giant, awkward, heavy, uncertain thing - aka COVID-19.

It’s been hard. Our team has mourned the loss of programs and grieved for the young people we haven’t been able to work with. Ones we know are facing particularly hard situations at home while trying to navigate online schooling, supporting their families or may live in harmful situations. We mourn the cancelled plans and programs that we worked so hard in 2019 to organize. The whole team misses connecting on a regular basis with those who used to fill our shop with laughter and energy and of course all the schools and community partners that invited us through their doors. We’ve had to reimagine everything.

One of the biggest pivots and sources of stress we’ve faced during this time has been our Bike Club program. How do we change an amazing, hands-on, in-person, high-impact, 10-week experience into something safe but remote, hands-off and shorter in duration? We’ve definitely questioned whether it’s the right thing to be doing when our own experience and the best practice research in our sector says that length of time matters, that being able to build trust and connection face-to-face is the best way to deliver successful social emotional learning programs. We know what big impact looks like and what the research says about how to get it. What we’ve been forced to create this year isn’t going to do that. So, what is even the point?

But here’s the thing. The new programs and pivots that all organizations are making have value for what they are providing right now. In this time. Today.  It’s unfair to compare what is now being created to accommodate all the restrictions with what was developed before, when those restrictions didn’t exist. The change that has occurred is too significant and universal.

What we are building now is valuable for its own sake. As Theodore Roosevelt is quoted as saying, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” We cannot allow comparisons to the past to paralyze us into inaction for the future. We don’t know where this change will take us but comparing the new to what came before denies us a learning opportunity, a new direction or an innovation that we would never have found if we had continued in the familiar, comfortable and normal path.

There is opportunity to see with fresh eyes, a chance to bump into opportunities that we would have never considered before.

I encourage you to mourn the loss of what was and but consider the bright possibility of what is being newly built. Maybe it will serve our communities even better, maybe it will support our neighbours even better but we’ll never know if we continually grade the new on the curve set by the old.

Let’s remove comparison and pack along our knowledge and wisdom from the past. We’ll be able to chart a new course forward that will be exciting, unexpected and has the potential to change many lives.

The programs of right now matter to our participants of right now no matter how long, short, in-person or remote. They have our time, our energy and our attention. They have a connection, however small, to someone who cares to show up for them and show up for their community.

There will come a day when we can get back to our many in-person programs once again and I’ll be the first in line out the door with my sleeves rolled up to deliver. When we do that, I’m excited to include the new lessons this year has challenged us with. All of us, the programs, the youth, our sector, our society and ourselves, will be better for what we’ve learned by trying new things and pivoting along the way.

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Intentional community building should not be overlooked. When we come together, we talk through our insecurities, our uncertainties and share stories to help us better understand each other and the world we live in.

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