LOWELL — Colorful walls filled with student artwork, foosball tables, basketball hoops and other games and resources in Lowell Community Health Center’s Teen BLOCK have remained untouched during the pandemic, leaving young people without their network of peers and adult leaders.
But earlier this month, the program reopened, much to the enthusiasm of students.
Teen BLOCK – which stands for Building Leadership Opportunities in the Community – an after-school youth development program for teens ages 13-18, is back after two years of virtual meetings, staff furloughs and Zoom fatigue.
Monday through Thursday, 2-5 p.m., teens develop social and leadership skills through a range of different, completely free activities.
Ruth Ogembo, director of community programs, said Teen BLOCK encourages young people in Lowell to identify the needs of their community and commit to meeting them in unique ways. It is also an intimate space where young people can find comfort and support, which they may not have at home.
Inviting teenagers to the second floor of the health center is incredibly rewarding, Ogembo said.
“Having a space where the voice, experience and leadership of young people are valued is extremely important,” Ogembo said. “I can’t wait to see what this generation of young people are going to do, so I’m excited about that.”
Teens can choose to join a number of programs throughout the week, including an LGBTQ youth support group, a contemporary jazz and hip-hop dance class, the Teen Talk group to discuss personal issues, and speaking out, team building exercises and more. The health center also partners with schools to implement their Making Proud Choices program, a comprehensive course in sexual health and education.
But the pandemic has complicated their schedules, and Ogembo said it made attendees feel more “isolated” than ever.
Ogembo said she has seen the effects of the pandemic on students’ mental health and that the pandemic has caused a sharp drop in attendance at Teen BLOCK programs. Before COVID, more than 100 teenagers checked in regularly, but when they switched to a virtual format, Ogembo said only five or six did.
More than a third of high school students said they had “had poor mental health” as a result of the pandemic in 2021, according to an analysis by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The study also found that almost 45% said they had felt sad or hopeless in the past year, and LGBTQ students had poorer mental health than their peers.
Teen BLOCK serves as a “safety net” for young people to seek help from trusted adults and counselors and find ways to improve their neighborhoods, Ogembo said, and without it, “young people are left behind.” account”.
“We always hear about how the pandemic has affected adults, businesses, jobs and all of those things, and in that conversation you rarely hear about the impact of the pandemic on young people and children,” Ogembo said. “Connecting to Teen BLOCK gave them the connection to the community where they felt proud to be part of Lowell. … So once they lost that, you go to school, you come home, you go to school, you come home, you lose that connection to the community.
Mason Mugambi, a 17-year-old student at Lowell High School and teen ambassador at Teen BLOCK, was born in the United States but lived in Kenya for several years before moving to Massachusetts in 2018. He said culture shock was unbelievable”. and he was initially introverted and preferred to spend time in his “comfort zone” before opening up in Teen BLOCK.
His doctor, who he says worked at Lowell Community Health Center, recommended he join the program in 2019, and he’s loved it ever since. As a teen ambassador, Mugambi leads group introduction activities, where teens can gauge their current mood and answer a question of the day.
Mugambi said his involvement with Teen BLOCK inspired him to help in other ways, including joining the YMCA as a youth ambassador. He said he welcomes the return to in-person programs and appreciates the opportunity to engage directly with everyone face-to-face.
“I started getting involved in other communities, and it was kind of a place where I could just come and relax with the staff members and do some volunteering,” Mugambi said. “Being back in person is really good because virtual wasn’t that. It was hard to just look at a screen, and it wasn’t the same as walking in, saying hello to the staff, doing a gaffe.
As attendance at Teen BLOCK slowly increases, Youth Programs Manager Monica Veth said she is eager to provide young people with better access to mental health services and resources they may not otherwise have. otherwise in a virtual setting. She added that the in-person experience, she hopes, is a welcoming space that allows teens to open up.
“I love the work we do and the relationship we build with our young people,” Veth said. “I grew up in Lowell, so to work in this field, I’m giving back to my community in a way.”