Local nonprofit leaders predict a complex journey in addressing underlying issues

by Shari Finnell, editor/writer, Not for Profit News

Like many other nonprofit organizations, the team at Christel House Indianapolis had to quickly assess how to carry out its mission in spite of COVID-19 restrictions in early 2020 — an endeavor that revealed many of the challenges facing the students they serve.

“When the pandemic hit last March, our board members and our entire team came together and realized that the pandemic was not just going to last for a couple of weeks,” said Dr. Sarah Weimer, executive director of Christel House Indianapolis.

It was a critical undertaking as they considered the potential for educational setbacks among Christel House students living in some of the most under-resourced communities in Indianapolis. The closing of school buildings for 2,300 K-12 students and 750 adult learners would require addressing any challenges in their home environments.

Technology was identified as a priority, and the team implemented a plan to distribute devices to each of their students at their Indianapolis schools. However, that plan only addressed part of the equation. “They had the device but couldn’t access the Internet to download their assignments,” Weimer said. “We discovered that over 50 percent of our students in Indianapolis did not have access to WiFi.”

Although telecommunications companies offered discounted and free internet service for students in low-income households during the pandemic, more challenges came their way. “Providers were having deals for families to get free internet, but they had barriers,” Weimer said. “If you owed a bill, you couldn’t get free access. If you didn’t have a social security number, you couldn’t get access.” Through a partnership with the Indianapolis Mayor’s Office and a fundraising initiative, Christel House was able to purchase data packages totaling $10,000 a month to support their students. 

In looking back, Weimer said the pandemic further revealed the inequities that already existed based on demographics and neighborhoods. “The inequity question is one that we’re going to be grappling with for years to come,” Weimer said. “We don’t have a good grasp of how impoverished communities and communities of color were impacted by the pandemic. We know statistically but we don’t have an understanding of the toll, including the emotional and mental toll.

“There’s going to be a lot to unpack for the kids,” she added. “Besides academic and learning loss, the students we serve come from backgrounds where they need additional mental health services, food insecurity and childhood trauma, all of which were exacerbated by the pandemic,”

Dennis E. Bland, president of the Center for Leadership Development, an organization that equips African American youth with education, business and community leadership opportunities, including scholarships, said that the pandemic highlighted varying mindsets about the value of an education — a gap that must be addressed to ensure that equity is achieved.

Bland said there often is a perception that everyone understands the opportunities that are open to an individual who is committed to advancing their education. However, he said, that lack of understanding can be at the root of some inequities.

Students, especially those growing up in households where the importance of an education is stressed, will more likely take advantage of tutoring, counseling, summer classes, college prep and other programs that are available to them. “Students who were committed to taking advantage of those resources were the students who did the best,” he said. “It’s not necessarily the lack of resources, it’s a lack of understanding about the value of an education.”

Bland said the conversation must start there — educating students and their family about the value of an education. “It is the duty of caring people in our community to encourage students to study and to take advantage of these resources — not whether or not you feel like it. This is about whether or not you want to be successful. Success often means doing the opposite of what you feel.”

“We need to give more people an education on education,” Bland added. “We struggle as a society because we go along as if we think that people innately value education and learning.”

The challenges in understanding the impact of the pandemic on students is multi-faceted, Weimer agreed. “It’s not just about academic preparedness,” she said. We must address the social and emotional issues that have been confounded during the pandemic year. We will be focusing on those issues during the upcoming year.”

Christel House has had a history of addressing those complexities as part of the support it provides students. “We follow our students for five years after they graduate,” Weimer explained. “Poverty isn’t alleviated just because they graduated. The hurdles they have to overcome don’t magically disappear after they get a diploma.”

The organization tailors a support plan for each student, depending upon their specific needs. As they navigate college or other educational and career paths, each high school graduate stays in contact with college and career administrators who are aware of the potential barriers to their success.

“They (students) can proactively reach out if they need gas cards if they lose a job. If they have a job interview, we can help them secure interview clothes,” Weimer said. “We may have students in college who will sign up for classes and realize their books are not covered by financial aid. We’ll pay for their books.”

Navigating the complexities of college, like understanding what a Bursar’s Office is, can be difficult for first-generation high school graduates or first-generation college-goers, especially since they can’t go to their families for direction, Weimer added. “Some things are foreign for a large portion of our families,” she said.

While these challenges were already familiar to Christel House, the pandemic shed more light on some of the hurdles facing students who are in households where English is a second language. 

Many families with children learning at home are able to easily stand in and help them adjust and assist with questions related to their studies, Weimer noted. However, about 50 percent of the Christel House Indianapolis students live in households where the adults don’t speak English or who don’t engage with computers on a day-to-day basis.

“When they’re trying to help their child navigate assignments or instructions, there’s a language barrier,” Weimer said. “We need to do a better job of paying attention to low-income households, communities of color, immigrants so that we can do a better job of outreach, equitable practices and equitable access.”