This isn’t how the 50th anniversary year was supposed to play out for United Action for Youth, which serves at-risk young people in Johnson County and neighboring rural areas.
But the best-laid plans for birthday celebrations — including the 50th Anniversary Reunion and the May Festival of Flowers fundraiser, as well as the launch of a major fundraising campaign — have been out on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic, while essential services are moving online.
Because the need continues.
Founded in 1970 by a group of concerned parents in Iowa City, the nonprofit organization served 3,400 youths and 300 parents last year through prevention and intervention services, funded through grants and donations. The May fundraiser generally brings in $50,000, with the same goal in mind for the planned fundraising campaign, said Development Director Mickey Hampton, 43, of Iowa City.
UAY, as it’s known, now has 25 full-time staff members working with a more than $1 million budget to bring mental health counseling and social services to teens and their families; assist young parents up to age 23; and provide students with a welcoming, safe place to meet, hang out and explore the arts.
“Prevention services are all geared toward offering support to young people who are going through the typical things that teenagers go through — but also the more challenging, offering support to young people who might be at risk of dropping out of school, or at risk of homelessness, or young people who are experiencing bullying, or who are just looking for support at a tumultuous time during their growing up,” Hampton said.
Before all the recent closures, prevention programming was offered at the Swaim Youth Center in the Clock Tower Plaza, 355 Iowa Ave., Iowa City, open to junior high and high school students. The center also includes music and art studios, and after-school programming was available in area schools.
“All of that is geared toward offering support to young people so that they don’t require our intervention services,” Hampton said.
Intervention services typically are housed at Eastdale Plaza, 1700 S. First Ave., in Iowa City, and include providing housing for homeless youths, long-term therapy for teens who are suffering from mental health issues, are in a crisis situation with a family member, or otherwise are at-risk.
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“We get a lot of kids that are involved in both prevention and intervention, or they start out in one, and the other services provide an additional safety net for them,” said Hampton, who has been with the program in various capacities for 16 years, beginning as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer right out of college.
With schools and offices closed and social distancing in place, UAY’s mission remains the same. It’s the delivery that’s different.
“We’re really just focusing on how to stay connected with our families and our young people, because many of them are quite vulnerable right now, either experiencing loss of income, experiencing food insecurity or mental health issues,” Hampton said.
“This is a stressful time for any us, let alone those who have already been struggling with depression or anxiety or other things — the isolation alone of a young person who may be home, and it’s not safe for them.
“To have a young person stuck at home for this length of time with few opportunities to reach out, those are real struggles that our families and our kids are facing.
“We are doing our best to adjust all of our programming and all of our services so that we are available to the kids during this really difficult thing.”
Like so many other entities, UAY is turning to virtual avenues of connection.
Most activities are now offered through Zoom, including art workshops. Young people living in UAY’s Transitional Living Program or participating in UAY’s Young Parent Program are receiving virtual home-visits, food drop-offs and weekly check-ins. To refer young people for the various services, go to the UAY website, unitedactionforyouth.org/covid-contact
Here’s a glance at some of the online activities:
• Virtual art workshops: Led by UAY staff, these sessions are offered to junior high and high school students from 3:30 to 5 p.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays. A recent workshop focused on making “Quarantine Zines” using paper, pencils and other items from around the house. Another focused on the pointillism techniques best known from “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte,” by Georges Seurat.
• Art kits: Packets are being assembled and dropped off to young people in need of supplies while school is closed; priority is given to students already connected to UAY’s art programming at the Swaim Center and in schools. For information, email firstname.lastname@example.org
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• Guitar and bass lessons: Offered by appointment to junior high and high school students via Zoom.
• UAY’s Pride group for LGBTQ+ youth and Fem Club will continue hosting weekly meetings online. LGBTQ+ groups that have been meeting at Tate High School and Clear Creek Amana also will continue online.
• Dungeons & Dragons: Supervised by a UAY staff member trained in youth development, this weekly group lets participants use this interactive role-playing game to try different personas or roles, think as a team, and navigate interpersonal conflicts.
• Updates: Follow @unitedactionforyouth on Facebook and Instagram.
The organization formed by Vietnam-era hippies concerned that young people needed adults to help guide them toward good life decisions, continues that mission now — and will continue to do so as young people navigate and emerge from the current world situation, Hampton said.
“There was a real spirit of accepting young people where they’re at, seeing them without judgment and really celebrating their strengths and focusing what they can offer to the community, instead of always focusing on what they’re doing wrong,” she noted. “Fifty years later, that’s still the philosophy we bring to our young people. However they walk through that door, we welcome them and will treat them with respect.
“We have a phrase that’s carried over since the ’70s, that’s called ‘unconditional positive regard.’ The kids call is ‘UPR’ for short,” she said. It’s an attitude that helps “provide the space for the young people to thrive and reach their potential.”
Pointing out that she’s not a therapist, Hampton said it will be interesting to see how the COVID-19 experience will be viewed by youths as time goes on.
“Having young people who are isolated and at home — how will they interpret this? What kind of support are they going to need coming out of this,” she said. “We see a lot of stuff on social media parents who are struggling with home schooling, but maybe what we’re really not seeing as much of is kids who are not eating or not having their mental health needs addressed while they’re stuck at home,” she said.
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“This will be interesting to see, what we get over the crisis part of this — people losing their jobs and people needing food. Once we get on the other side, how will we address the mental health needs, because that’s going to be a big issue for a lot of people.”
Comments: (319) 368-8508; email@example.com
• United Action for Youth: unitedactionforyouth.org/
• Referrals: unitedactionforyouth.org/covid-contact
• Social media: facebook.com/unitedactionforyouth/
• To donate: unitedactionforyouth.org/donate
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