The Future is Now
Jeremiah Program’s new virtual programming is more than a response to COVID-19. It’s an opportunity to provide services to more mothers and children, including those living in remote and rural areas.
BY ADRIENNE VAN DER VALK
“We aren’t just treading water in this moment. We’re taking everything we’ve learned about disrupting generational poverty over the last two decades and making sure the structures we put in place equip us to support more moms and more kids quickly.”
When Jeremiah Program president and CEO Chastity Lord wrote these words in an April 23 blog post, she wasn’t speaking rhetorically. Staff specializing in three different focus areas—child development, life-skills coaching, and virtual empowerment—have been laboring in the background for over a month, now, adapting Jeremiah Program’s signature community support and early childhood education pillars so they can continue to serve mothers and children during the pandemic and beyond.
With Jeremiah Program staff now working from home, service providers from every campus have been meeting virtually via Zoom to design a new future—one that ensures the ability to serve more moms and kids in new communities. The programming they’re developing—and have now begun rolling out—is nimble, forward-thinking, and scalable. Scalability is important because, as Lord noted in her post, “More pockets of poverty are being created in our country than has been seen in our lifetimes.”
Implementing any kind of virtual programming relies on working devices and a stable internet connection; with this in mind, Jeremiah Program conducted a technology audit across all campuses, both residential and community-based. The audit specifically focused on having video capability so staff can see participants face-to-face—not just hear their voices. Through the support of local and national partners, JP has been able to quickly identify and fill technology gaps across all campuses, including purchasing laptops for every staff member and mother who needed one. Now, with stronger connectivity established, Jeremiah Program is taking the next step: implementing its new virtual programming initiatives.
Before the COVID pandemic, Jeremiah Program was already in the process of enhancing program coordination across all campus child development centers. Crystal Ward, an educational consultant who has been spearheading the implementation of this work, says the goal is to think of all Jeremiah Program early childhood centers as collaborative mini-school district.
“We should be cascading efforts in such a way that allows increased capacity as well as increased collaboration,” Ward says. “And, so, taking all of the CDCs across the Jeremiah Program and thinking about ways in which we can share best practices and knowledge, as well as capacity, across all of our different sites to ensure all children are getting really top quality materials and guidance from their teachers.”
With the onset of the pandemic, collaborative work that was already underway both pivoted and accelerated. The child development staff quickly began writing, revising, and pushing out downloadable curriculum packets for all pre-K age groups. Mothers can use the activities in these packets to keep their children engaged in learning and key skill development using materials they can easily access at home. New activities will roll out every two weeks through the end of June, with feedback collected between batches to support a continuous improvement cycle. Teachers are checking in with students weekly via Zoom.
“A lot of the day in early childhood is free play and social-emotional [learning],” says Rebecca Putzer, director of coordinated family services at the Minneapolis and St. Paul campuses. “We’re really trying to get our parents information and education around, ‘You don’t have to sit with your child for eight hours a day and do structured activities.’ That’s not what it’s about. And that’s not what it’s about in the classroom either. It’s bridging the home and classroom life. Luckily, at Jeremiah, we’ve been able to do that already. This is just a whole other layer.”
Jeremiah Program is also planning to post the lessons to the website so educators and parents outside the program can access the resources.
Because community is at the heart of Jeremiah Program, the inability to visit face-to-face posed a major service-delivery challenge for the virtual coaches. Several residence-based staff commented that they were used to seeing moms and kids every day. Many of their check-ins were informal; they had multiple opportunities each week to notice if someone was having a hard time or seemed particularly anxious about an issue in their lives. With this pattern so disrupted, a direct one-to-one translation of weekly in-person coaching to weekly online coaching was not going to adequately meet families’ needs, especially during a time of massive upheaval across multiple stressor areas.
Coaches are now checking in with moms up to three times a week—sometimes more. At a minimum, each session addresses concerns related to employment status, school responsibilities (including looking ahead to registering for the fall), or any parenting challenges mothers may be facing (including identifying basic needs they are lacking, like diapers and formula). For all moms, especially those who have experienced domestic abuse, mental health issues, or chemical dependency, these touchpoints are an opportunity to connect and assess for any critical needs or safety issues. Depending on the need, a coaching session may involve talking through an unemployment application, troubleshooting how to respond to a child’s behavior issue, arranging to see a doctor for a medication adjustment, or any other conversation the circumstances call for.
“I try to listen more and talk less in these meetings,” says Amy Klein, family services manager for Jeremiah Program’s Fargo, North Dakota, campus. “I try and make sure to at least hit those three areas [parenting, employment, and education] and then let them take the lead. Because, really, this is about them, and what their needs are, what they need from me, what they need from us as an organization.”
Empowerment is a 16-week program that all Jeremiah participants must complete before officially joining the program. The curriculum focuses on breaking negative thought patterns, building self-esteem, and empowering women to trust their inherent capabilities to make good choices for themselves and their families. Because women enter and exit the program continually, and because the Empowerment experience builds on itself, transitioning to a virtual model poses some unique challenges.
More than 60 moms were in the middle of their Empowerment when Jeremiah Program was forced to pause the program across all sites. By mid-May, classes will begin again via e-learning. Under normal circumstances, the Empowerment journey is designed to support mothers during their adjustment period when they are most vulnerable. Now, all mothers—regardless of their time in the program—are experiencing an adjustment period, one that may seriously test the skills they’ve developed in the program. For the admissions staff and Empowerment volunteers, this means building flexibility into the prompts and protocols they rely on during virtual Empowerment sessions. It also means exploring possibilities for sharing the Empowerment curriculum beyond Jeremiah Program so more women can benefit.
“[We have] really been focused on ensuring all moms have the technology they need for e-learning and moving the experience to a virtual platform,” says JoMarie Morris, executive director of Jeremiah Program’s Rochester campus. “Empowerment will look different, but we are excited for the opportunity to try some new program elements along with our core curriculum.”