For Sally Nnamani, former Program Director for PeacePlayers Brooklyn, and now the Director of Programs and Partnerships for PeacePlayers United States, 2020 “has been a great opportunity to stretch.” And stretch is just what PeacePlayers U.S. did to make sure participants were getting the chance to stay healthy in mind and body during the pandemic.
When schools, businesses and other community programs began to either shut down or shift to virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Sally was disappointed, “[PeacePlayers] Brooklyn was just on the cusp of its Spring programming starting. We had just got a new school involved in our Girls Peace League before everything shut down. We were reaching close to 100 youth per week.” Disappointment quickly led to other challenges.
At the height of the pandemic in March and April, New York City was one of the hardest hit cities in the United States. Brownsville, PeacePlayers Brooklyn’s home community, was hit especially hard. Housing challenges exacerbated the effects of the pandemic, as did food insecurity in Brownsville’s food desert. Many young people and PeacePlayers coaches were dealing with personal challenges and the transition to virtual education: for these young people, virtual learning presented major hurdles, increasing the educational inequity that already existed in their in-person learning. Most difficult of all – young people were seeing family members and school staff die of COVID-19.
How do you help youth find hope in times like these? “I see every challenge as an opportunity,” Sally says.
Sally remained grounded in what really mattered, “I wanted to focus on our programming, but first I wanted to know if the kids and coaches were ok.” When it came to keeping in touch with the young people once the pandemic ended in-person programming, Sally recalls one story in particular: “There were three boys we couldn’t get in touch with. Messages weren’t going through. None of their peers had heard from them” She pauses then laughs, adding “We had a prep call for one of our virtual Friendship Games sessions and then we found all three kids on one screen saying hello. They’re still hanging out. Still looking out for each other. We had just added two boys to our LDP two months before the lockdown and to see them all together at the park was pure joy.” And to Sally, that was what was most important.
“Initially, our program was focused on bringing youth together from across the divides in Brownsville but something was missing” said Sally. She continues, “we sent care packages full of PeacePlayer gear and toy basketball hoops to the young people’s homes. Getting that gear helped bring the energy and a sense of normalcy of in-person programming.” Not only was PeacePlayers broadcasting directly onto young people’s screens, they now had the equipment to replicate practice as best as they could.
These early challenges quickly led to optimism and opportunities. The PeacePlayers Virtual Friendship Games, generously supported by Ed and Penelope Peskowitz, provided a small group of youth leaders from Brooklyn with the chance to connect with their peers from across the United States and the world. Sally says, “A lot of the U.S. kids haven’t travelled outside of the country, so it was good for them to hear from the other [PeacePlayers] international sites.” But it wasn’t just the young people who benefited, “Lots of collaboration was spurred between PeacePlayers sites. Staff [from the U.S.] being able to meet and connect with international staff. Knowledge being shared and building relationships.” says Sally. This meant with every virtual program, the organization as a whole learned. The young people were learning from each other while the staff were learning from each other and figuring out how to make these virtual programs and connections better.
As some cities and countries loosened self-isolation restrictions in the Fall, PeacePlayers Brooklyn was able to conduct some in-person programming. Sally says, “Checking-in with families throughout virtual space created some engagement, but once we could do in-person the kids came out in full force. The kids were very excited to be at in-person programming, often getting to programming before coaches.” For instance, the Leadership Development Program (LDP) participants went for a bike ride: 25 young leaders and 5 coaches. So many young people were interested in this event that Sally had to create a waiting list. This event was followed by in-person LDP sessions. Yet, even as PeacePlayers was able to do some in-person programming, Sally and the Brooklyn staff had learned from the events of the spring, “we were constantly preparing our youth in the event the city shut down again that we were ready to go virtual” said Sally.
As a result, PeacePlayers Brooklyn was able to adapt. The Peace League was held virtually, attracting 20+ girls in the Spring and 15 to 16 girls a week in the Fall. We pivoted the program to a virtual skills academy engaging our partners at Nike, Brooklyn Nets Academy, and our network of PeacePlayers coaches across our five cities. For Brooklyn’s LDP program, they were able to conduct those sessions in-person, where they covered basketball and personal development, mentorship, service opportunities, and developing their team ethos, says Sally.
The pandemic has given Sally a lot to consider. Sally thinks that virtual programming will be a part of PeacePlayers going forward thanks to “the new opportunities it presents; it’ll decrease the cost of bringing people together; and has given us a path for greater collaboration across the U.S.” We’ve already introduced our National Girls Summit, a 5-week virtual program bringing together standout youth leaders and coaches across our five cities. Sally stresses the importance of the efforts the coaches and herself made throughout the pandemic to check-in on the young people: “PeacePlayers is more than just another after school program, we’re a community.”