July 12, 2022
While the impacts of COVID linger, summer programs come up with new ways to engage Greater Lawrence youth

ECCF’s Greater Lawrence Summer Fund supports 45 nonprofit organizations

By Michelle Xiarhos Curran, ECCF Communications Writer

More than two years after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, organizers of summer programming focused on Greater Lawrence youth continue to adapt to the “new normal” left behind by the virus.

The impacts of illness and loss, school closures and social isolation linger longer in low-income communities of color like Lawrence, whose residents were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. Merrimack College political science lecturer Kirstie Lynn Dobbs and two of her colleagues, assistant professor Stephanie Garrone-Shufran and associate professor Dr. Laura Hsu, were particularly concerned about young people.

“What is clear is that the pandemic exacerbated inequities in academic attainment,” said Dobbs.

But the opportunity and achievement gaps between students from communities like Lawrence and their more affluent peers are not new. And for 30 years, Essex County Community Foundation’s Greater Lawrence Summer Fund (GLSF) has worked to narrow that gap by supporting high-quality summer programming for youth from Lawrence, Andover, North Andover and Methuen that enhances social, academic and emotional abilities; discourages unhealthy behaviors and reduces summer learning loss.

This year marks the second year that GLSF has supported Youth Voice, the youth development program launched by Dobbs, Garrone-Shufran and Hsu, with the help of four Merrimack College students, in the summer of 2021. Hosted at the Lawrence branch of the Merrimack Valley YMCA, Youth Voice engages middle school students in activities that strengthen the essential skills needed not only for long-term success and health, but also to be engaged members of their community. Through writing, art, research, debate, digital media education and more, participants will work on exploring their own identities, their place in the world and what they can do to positively impact their communities.

“We’re hoping that the kids leave with a sense of agency, that they feel they have power, despite their age,” said Dobbs, who collaborates with local groups like Youth Development Organization, Elevated Thought, the Lawrence History Museum and others to create an ecosystem of learning. “It’s about holistically developing these young people.”

This year, Youth Voice is being run with the help of three Merrimack College students, all from Lawrence. The program will also welcome into the fold a mental health specialist, who will teach participants some strategies for self-care, an increasingly critical skill in a post-pandemic world, especially for teens, and particularly for those teens affected by trauma.

“It’s just a gap that we were feeling,” said Dobbs, adding that young people can’t be expected to be harbingers of change if they don’t have the tools to care for themselves.

In 2022, the GLSF awarded $317,400 to 45 organizations running 48 programs, thanks in part to a generous fundraising match by an anonymous donor.

For the entire list of 2022 GLSF Grantees, click HERE.

Josh Miner, longtime chair of the GLSF, said he supports the Summer Fund because of the wide variety of programming it powers, the large number of kids the programs engage and because the Summer Fund’s core group of capable volunteers can effectively evaluate programs and efficiently allocate funds.

“Organizations and programs supported by the summer fund are so vital to the health, wellbeing and growth of so many young people from Greater Lawrence,” Miner added.

Si Se Puede, also a 2022 grantee, is one of those organizations. Clarissa Osorez started her job as executive director of the Lawrence nonprofit that supports youth living in the Merrimack Courts Housing Project and the surrounding Tower Hill neighborhood in August of 2020, just a few months after the pandemic began.

Right away Osorez, a recent California transplant who grew up in the projects in East Los Angeles, began hosting art classes and other activities in the courtyard, since COVID had essentially shutdown Si Se Puede’s traditional summer program, Project Away.

When Project Away reopened in the summer of 2021, Osorez’ emphasis on field trips to places outside of Lawrence – the Boston Harbor Islands, Southwick Zoo, whale watching and more – revived the kids, who were worn out from the impacts of the pandemic, including long school shutdowns.

“A lot of the kids just needed the program to work like the way I had run it,” said Osorez.

This summer, she plans to continue that model and has some big plans for Project Away and the kids, including trips to museums, zoos, amusement parks, a college campus and, if possible, even Washington, D.C.

“I want them to be exposed to new experiences,” said Osorez. “A lot of the students here don’t get out.”

Experiences like this not only help kids learn about themselves and the world around them but engaging them on this level discourages unhealthy behaviors by providing safe, fun alternatives.

“It keeps them off the street. It keeps them from experimenting with other things,” said Osorez. “I think it’s going to be a great summer.”

Thanks to the collective investment of generous donors throughout Essex County, summer will be brighter for thousands of children and youth from Greater Lawrence, who will have the opportunity to experience theater, art, sport, science and academic camps; who will get the chance to dance, sing, ride horses and become leaders; who will feel empowered by nature and seeing new and incredible places for the very first time.

“The wide variety of programs that ECCF’s Greater Lawrence Summer Fund supports provide opportunities that otherwise would not be available to so many amazing young people across Greater Lawrence,” said Hehershe Busuego, director of programs and racial equity at ECCF. “We are grateful for the many people who came together to invest in our youth this summer and hope that we can continue to support these programs for many, many years to come.”

For more information about the Greater Lawrence Summer Fund, or to donate, please visit eccf.org.

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