As a new school year starts, I find myself not only reflecting on the past year but wondering just what this new year will bring. I’m so incredibly proud of everything we accomplished last year during a pandemic. For over 30 years, our organization has focused on the importance of one-on-one, face-to-face interactions with our students and so many of our coaching and enrichment programs are built on the idea that we should meet students where they are and be integrated into the community. COVID-19 clearly changed all that.

We suddenly had to find new ways to support our students as it was clear that they needed us now, more than ever. We could have chosen to hunker down, focus on survival, do the bare minimum and just get through the crisis. Instead, I saw every single staff member raise their own personal bar and demonstrate that even through adversity, choosing to make a difference and have an impact, just felt better for all of us. We got creative and we got busy! We figured out new ways to interact with students and worked to really understand what our students needed during these times and adjusted our services to meet those needs.

When we couldn’t meet with students in person, we pivoted and delivered our coaching and enrichment activities completely virtually. When we realized how many students didn’t have internet access or the technology to support online learning, we distributed nearly 180 laptops and hotspots to fill the gap. When our students couldn’t prioritize their education because they were struggling financially, we created the Emergency Assistance Fund to help them with basic needs like groceries and rent. So far, we’ve helped 120 youth and disbursed over $170,000 through this fund.

Innovations from Change

The pandemic was truly a paradigm shift for Pivotal. Many things we believed to be true about our work suddenly became untrue. We changed out of necessity but soon realized that some of the changes had unexpected benefits. Moving workshops online meant students no longer had to contend with one of the biggest hindrances they had in the past – lack of transportation. As long as they had a computer and internet access, they could make it to the workshops – and they did! Our attendance numbers actually increased last year as students who weren’t able to attend before showed up and, more importantly, kept coming back.

Stepping up for Scholars

As our team came through, so did you all. Time and again, the community stepped up for us, donating generously, volunteering their time and experience, and supporting us in any way they could. We were blown away by the compassion and generosity of our community of supporters who wanted to understand what our young people were going through and where they needed help. We had more new donors last year than ever before. Our volunteers sent out over a hundred care packages during the pandemic, helping our students feel connected to their community of support. When in-person internships were not possible, the Pivotal Resource Council put their heads together to find internship opportunities so students could continue to gain crucial employment experience in their field of interest. We could not have done it without you and for that, we are truly grateful.

Looking ahead, with an eye on the rear-view mirror

Pivotal is at a crossroads. We know our approach works and we want to expand our reach and serve more youth. The big question of course, is how. We must be smart about how we grow the organization and use the lessons we’ve learned to guide us. We know so much more now than we did when we first started out and one critical learning is that we can’t do this work in a vacuum. We want to expand into areas where we can find a community of people and organizations willing to collaborate, work with us, and help our young people flourish.

As a start, this year our goal is to get back to serving the number of youth we served before COVID-19 hit. We also want to build out our alumni network, so students that we’ve helped can give back and help others as they come up. Finally, we want to re-examine our work through the lens of social justice, equality, diversity, and inclusion. In 2020, we created a Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) team at Pivotal and we will be rolling out in-depth training for all our staff and board next year to help them become advocates and allies and understand the impact JEDI issues have on our organization, business practices and our students. We must look at all the systems that touch the lives of our youth and work to remove systemic racism and barriers that make it hard for our young people to achieve their dreams.

This pandemic has continued longer than any of us thought and in some ways, we are entering this school year with more questions than answers about what comes next. But if the last year has taught me anything, it’s that Team Pivotal will always rise to the challenge and work to help our students with grace, resilience, and kindness. I hope you’ll continue this journey with us – we can’t do it alone – we need your help and the help of many others in our community to make real, lasting change in the lives of foster youth.