The Neighborhood Advocate

Shifting Gears – From Face-to-Face to Virtual Community-based Youth Justice/Child Welfare Services

By Jenilee Pollan, Assistant Program Director, Ulster County Youth Advocate Programs (YAP), Inc.

A huge focus of our work at Ulster County Youth Advocate Programs (YAP), Inc. is coordinating with Ulster County School District to ensure our program participants are doing their schoolwork. Our county has been giving kids Chromebooks so YAP staff are making sure all of our kids have one, and if they don’t, staff go pick up the devices or school packets and deliver them to their homes.

We have been successful in working with program youth virtually because we are truly meeting them where they are. We ask them about the games they are playing, the apps they are using and the devices they have at their disposal. Most of our kids are aged 13-16; and they love video games. We have also been lucky with getting youth to play chess and board games via FaceTime, but it depends on the child, their interests, and ultimately what they have access to. Playing games with young people gives you a chance to have interactive conversations about how they are feeling; it offers the opportunity to help them feel comfortable, which gets them to open up.

YAP Advocate used social distancing to help a program participant tune his guitar

We discuss feelings regarding COVID-19, social distancing and how it is affecting us, them, our community and families. This week we are implementing virtual basketball drills and BINGO. The majority of our male clients absolutely love basketball and the Advocate coordinating this activity is one who usually does groups at the YMCA, so we thought, why not do virtual basketball groups?

We utilize Zoom to bring clients, staff and families together through our weekly Anger Management/Coping with Stress During Social Distancing COVID-19  group. In one of these sessions, the youths made stress balls and communicated with one another about how they are feeling.

We also hold several cooking classes during the week that are led by our Advocate/professional Chef Zach. One day, he hosted a group where youths and their moms made chicken with barbecue sauce (from scratch) using ingredients they already had.

YAP Advocate Chef Zach used Zoom technology to teach young people how to make barbecue sauce and create innovative meals with it

This group was wonderful; it brought families together, we witnessed it on Zoom and it was inspiring to see moms who might otherwise be critical of their sons see the positive in them and work together with them to make a meal.

The key to all of this is to be creative and use the bond you have built with your kids before COVID-19, and above all, meet them where they are. FYI, while our kids now love our virtual group activities, the first few weeks were tough. We had to think outside of the box, collaborate, research and ultimately we had to ask them what they want to do and what they are willing to engage in. They are why we are here in the first place, to help them identify their gifts and how they want to use them to achieve their goals.

Editor’s Note: Youth Advocate Programs (YAP), Inc. is an alternative to youth incarceration and congregate placement serving communities in 29 states and the District of Columbia. Learn more at

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