Daring to Exhale: 700 Days of COVID

By Erin Porteous

Our lives are marked by milestones that are ours alone: birthdays, anniversaries, and special moments. These are the times when we find joy, connection, and meaning; the moments we choose to concretize in memory. And then there are the world-changing events so immense they become milestones we never expected, impacting and defining who we are and will be in very different ways. 

March 2020 became one of those unexpected milestones. And, many of us have experienced March as a time of reflection since the pandemic turned our world upside down. Today, and this week in particular, I am reflecting on that monumental moment two years ago when businesses across the state and country shut down, and the global pandemic that pummeled every aspect of our lives arrived. 

As a CEO and a mother, I stood on a precipice, one with so many big decisions to make for the organization, our staff, our Club kids – and for my own family. Like everyone else, I had no idea that, over 700 days later, “COVID” would be a household word, one syllable and deceptively simple, but carrying with it an infinite amount of weight and emotion. 

During the initial months of lockdowns, rising case numbers, empty grocery store shelves, and school closures, we faced an unknown future unlike anything we had ever experienced before. We stood alongside each other, challenged to both rise to the needs of the present moment and use every ounce of our resilience and optimism to plan for a future that changed shape with every Polis press conference or CDC announcement. 

Constant unpredictability required sharp decisions, quick responses, and fast actions in a rinse-and-repeat cycle. With data changing every moment, plans were made that often times had a shelf-life equivalent of fast-food fries: good for a few hot minutes before being tossed out. 

Like other organizations across the state, at Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Denver we couldn’t predict the end of lockdowns or when vaccines would become available. But we knew right away that the kids and families we serve would need tools and support – whether mental and emotional health, internet access, or groceries – and we employed every available resource to get kids and families what they needed.  

Even when our traditional service model couldn’t operate, our priority was continuing to serve our kids, families, and communities. Our expert team of social workers and mental health staff leapt into action on March 17, 2020, reaching out to 1,574 families by phone in the first month of COVID alone. 30% of those families had an urgent need we were able to meet, whether it was access food, educational support, or direct mental health care. We were constantly poised to take the next right step.  

Two staff members with a pallet of food to deliver to families.Knowing that our mission never operates in a silo, we also quickly repositioned our staff to work in daily shifts with our partners at Food Bank of the Rockies – who lacked volunteers due to the pandemic - ensuring families would continue benefiting from the generous meals Food Bank provides. For eight weeks, we were the hands, feet, and muscle needed to box, move, and deliver food to tens of thousands of families across our shuttered city. In total, our staff supported the distribution of more than 8 million meals. The immediate response and commitment of our staff during this time remains one of my proudest moments. 

On April 8, 2020, we launched an Emergency Family Assistance Fund to meet the most urgent needs of our kids and families. In the first week alone, donors contributed more than $20,000 for food, hygienic supplies, educational kits, and cleaning supplies. Our community came together to support one another, all of us looking for ways to manage through the crisis without leaving anyone behind. 

And we didn't stop there. We were one of the first youth-serving organizations in Denver to offer in-person summer programming. Our staff opened the doors of our buildings wide, with their welcoming, smiling faces partially hidden behind a new ubiquitous accessory: a face mask. We reopened during a vulnerable time, when many stores, schools, and even recreation centers were still closed, and yet we began thinking about the fall season and trying to anticipate what kids would need in their next chapter of uncertainty and instability.  

When the fall school semester arrived, our staff worked across the community to partner with organizations and school districts, opening remote learning centers both within our Clubs and pop-up locations. These absolutely essential safe spaces provided reliable internet access, one-on-one support with virtual schooling, and foundational social-emotional learning and support for Club members. 

That social-emotional learning has been woven through every program over the past two years and is infused in every moment inside our Clubs today; our kids receive mental health support every time they walk through our doors. This support was already critical for kids on March 17, 2020, and the urgency for it has only grown since then. 

America’s children are facing a mental health crisis as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and we are proud to say that we have been both responsive and proactive over the past two years, with an expert team supporting every Club member through what, for many, has been the defining crisis of their young lives. 

15-year-old Club member Mia shared, “When COVID first hit, the Club had to close for two months. As someone who comes daily, not being here for two months really left a void in my life. The Club provides the basics and so much support. When you don't have the space, you appreciate it a lot more. Kids need to get out of the house, socialize, and get the support they need. We were mentally drained by being at home. When the Club opened for online learning, the staff members were able to offer more support, which we really needed.” 

Today, Mia and her friends are back in the Club every afternoon.

Since that first COVID summer in 2020, the doors of our Clubs have remained open. Through every twist and turn of the pandemic, we’ve operated in close partnership with public health agencies and families, ensuring the safety of our members while never losing sight of our vision: that every child will achieve their greatest potential. And this March, we come together in celebration and gratitude that, at Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Denver, we are now serving nearly 2,000 kids every single day across the Denver Metro area. 

And as we look forward, wizened by the vicissitudes of the pandemic, we remain steadfast in our commitment to the three priority outcome areas that we have stood by for over a decade: Academics and Careers, Character and Leadership, and Healthy Lifestyles. We look to this triad as our north star, no matter the time, place, or crisis, supporting our Club members through each present moment and guiding us in planning for a future that feels a little more predictable today than it did two years ago. 

So today, we dare to exhale. As an organization and as individuals. As moms and dads. As leaders and team members.  

Today, March 17, 2022, all who are a part of Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Denver – whether staff, families, community partners, or donors and supporters – stand side by side. Together, we recognize and honor our shared humanity, the resilience and courage it took to navigate the pandemic, the strength we find in our mission, and our commitment in the face of an unknown future. We reaffirm our optimism and belief that a bright future is possible and has always been possible. And we know it is our Club kids who will show us the way.