While the COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult for everyone, imagine you are a young person just out of jail, on parole or dropped out of high school. You are determined to get a new start on your life, and you are focused on getting the education and workforce skills you need to move from surviving to thriving. You already have a steep hill to climb. And then, the pandemic hits and everything becomes more complicated.
FHI 360’s National Institute for Work and Learning is helping vulnerable young people get skills and resources to successfully reenter their communities. We lead the Compass Rose Collaborative, a partnership funded by the U.S. Department of Labor, through which we work with community-based organizations in nine communities across the United States to provide workforce skills, education and internship opportunities to young adults who have been through the justice system.
Throughout the pandemic, FHI 360 and its partners have found creative ways to keep services flowing to returning citizens. At the heart of the Compass Rose Collaborative is partnership: with employers, community colleges, mental health providers, teachers and participants themselves. We seek input from the Young Adult Leadership Council, which is made up of Compass Rose participants who provide us with direct feedback on the program. We rely on them to tell us what they need and how we can improve. During the pandemic, FHI 360 and the Compass Rose communities have created new solutions for our participants.
Our partners have sourced and are providing personal protective equipment for participants in high-risk positions. By partnering with new employers with openings, we are finding alternative employment for those who have lost their jobs because of COVID-19. For example, one of our participants was laid off from his job as a cook in a restaurant in Los Angeles. His proactive case manager helped him secure a paid internship at the YMCA, where he is now cooking for people who are homeless. What could have been a severe setback on his path to a stable life has become meaningful for him and for others.
Those feelings of fulfillment and belonging are essential for our participants’ success. Many of our participants come out of the criminal justice system and into homes that are already stressed because of job loss and now COVID-19-related illness. In response, our case managers are now more focused on participants’ mental health and basic needs, linking them to counselors who provide services remotely during this time of social distancing.
FHI 360 and its partners have experienced challenges and successes using technology. Our case managers are providing more services virtually and have found solutions that will remain in place after the immediate crisis passes. For example, young people who were once required to visit offices to sign for and pick up payments can now receive funds electronically.
One challenge for returning citizens is keeping up with their training programs — including job readiness and financial literacy courses — which have moved online during the pandemic. It can be hard to navigate training on a phone, and many participants cannot afford additional mobile data plans to attend classes. The Compass Rose team supplies them with laptops, software and internet hot spots. Case managers have connected some participants to local resources to receive discounted internet access.
This shift to virtual classes and service delivery is a rare silver lining in this dark time. By being able to meet with case managers and access classes from home, many of our participants no longer worry about their transportation or childcare challenges to access education.
These young people are working hard to survive and thrive, and we must continue to support them. The Compass Rose Collaborative is committed to helping our participants each step of the way.