When the pandemic began, all members of our core staff had been working as a high-high-functioning team for just over a year. Each team member was blossoming in their role. We were reaching youth, engaging partners and donors, writing grants and raising funds, while also recruiting new folks to help us serve. Additionally we had awesome long-term contractors and an amazing group of volunteers. We had young people scheduled to perform at numerous events, including some for a nationwide audience of 900 people in Denver for a conference.
Then on March 3, 2020, just a few short hours after we submitted one of our biggest grant applications of the year, it began raining in the office. That rain turned into a downpour in almost all of our spaces. Within the hour, we learned that a main sprinkler pipe on the top floor of our building had been damaged and the entire building was flooding. It was an all hands on deck situation (pun intended) as the staff pulled youth art and photos from the walls to protect them from the rain, unplugged all the computers, bagged the printer, server, and other tech, and gathered and carried any equipment and furniture we could get out. The rain continued for HOURS. Little did we know that was not going to be our biggest upheaval of the year…
A week later, when the rain stopped and the office was in complete disarray, I remember standing in the adult workshop room with Laura after having read the news that COVID-19 cases were popping up in Colorado. Partners were starting to cancel workshops, then schools were closed, then the entire state was closed. We thought it would be for two weeks, a month max.
But two weeks can feel like a lifetime for a youth (or really, anyone) who is struggling and has had their support systems taken away and safe spaces closed. While state officials were rolling out “safer at home” measures, for many of the youth we serve, home is not a safe place or a place where their needs are met.
Our programs staff immediately got to work adapting workshops for a virtual format, carefully selecting prompts that would promote creative expression. Our biggest concern was that the young people’s own responses may elicit strong feelings without a trained facilitator present. How do we best facilitate through a screen?
Operations staff began dealing with the fallout of canceled events and performances, many of which were fundraising activities for the agency so we can continue to support the program. Our grant funders had mixed reactions to the pandemic. Some foundations closed up shop and stalled all funding applications and awards until the dust settled, fearful of the economic downturn that could affect their reserves. Other funders doubled down and gave more, recognizing that organizations that are vital to our survival as a community and society were about to hit a critical moment when resources would dry up and the need for services would exponentially increase. (THANK YOU to all the funders that supported us and other community programs in this difficult time!) We reached out to our individual donors and business sponsors to say hello, we hope you are ok and healthy, and is there anything we can do for you?— making a point to support the businesses that had been supporting us and were now in need of our community to keep them open.
Despite the physical distance that our team experienced, we grew to better understand ourselves and one another as we continued to meet weekly via Zoom and chat on Slack. Our Executive Director and founder, creator of the Phoenix Rising curriculum, recognized our own need to express, connect, and transform the challenges we were facing as individuals and a community and began doing prompts with us every week. Just as youth in our workshops connect with one another and build stronger bonds over the course of a workshop series, so did we through these prompts that became part of our weekly staff meetings.
Despite our internal and individual struggles, we came together to serve a greater good and take steps where we could to support the youth and keep the agency and program operational. By continuing to provide services and by amplifying the voices of the youth, we publicly proclaim that youth have value and that their voices MATTER. In a normal year, we meet with youth in places where they gather. But with the pandemic and social distancing guidelines, we were unable to do so, greatly hindering our ability to reach youth, especially those without reliable internet access. To address this, we expanded our offerings to include Phoenix Rising Writing Kits with a journal, pen, prompts, and tactile items to allow youth to continue to create. We also provided opportunities for youth to perform in virtual settings, continuing to provide platforms for their voices to be heard.
Many of the youth we serve were already dealing with racism, ageism, sexism, poverty, neglect, and many other challenges prior to COVID-19.
These challenges were exacerbated by the current global crisis and that racial and social reckoning gripping our nation. Racism is another pandemic: an ongoing public health crisis that must be addressed. In 2020, we saw members of the community recognize for the first time the systemic racism and centuries old struggles many our youth still face today. Injustices our youth have written and spoken about since our inception were being heard and acknowledged on a national scale. Poetry and expression were also in the spotlight thanks to the recent inauguration performance by Amanda Gorman. Despite all the awfulness of the last year (and the backlash and hate that is sadly always present when injustices are publicly called out), there is hope that we as a community can learn, grow, and support one another. In the meantime, there’s a lot of work for us all to do to ensure that youth are heard and that equity is achieved.
Personally, I feel as though so much in my life changed, but also, not a whole lot is different. I’m home a lot more, and am grateful that I got to spend more time with my aging dog who needs a lot more attention these days. I’ve heard of all these people who have new hobbies, who have learned to play instruments or speak new languages. Some have learned how to bake and garden or have written a novel. I was not one of those people who developed a new hobby or even had one second of boredom.
This past year I’ve worked harder than I’ve ever worked in my life as the reasons I serve at Art from Ashes have never been more clear to me.
The biggest challenge for me was dealing with the grief and loss of life, isolation, and the loss of community as long-time community gathering places closed up shop. I also felt so defeated that all the hard work and planning that had gone into setting up our events, fundraising, programs and performances opportunities for youth in 2020 was washed away with COVID, forcing us to start with a clean slate and rebuild a curriculum that has worked so well in person for over 18 years. This past year I’ve learned to dig deep, work hard, adapt, and to appreciate the challenges and successes along the way. And most importantly to appreciate my health, maintain perspective, and continue to build connections with my community, even though the way I engage with my community has drastically changed.
So here’s to the After Times! I think we’ll have a new-found appreciation for our time spent together in person, talking, laughing, HUGGING! It’s true what they say, you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone. I can’t wait to actually laugh with folks without the use of emojis or gifs.