When Everything Changed
"One hundred and eleven days after I closed our offices on Reagan Drive, I admitted what was obvious to everyone but me. You good, Ross? Nope. Not good."
One hundred and eleven days after I closed our offices on Reagan Drive, I admitted what was obvious to everyone but me. You good, Ross? Nope. Not good.
In those first three and a half months, I did all the things a leader does in a crisis:
- Quickly pivot and migrate as many programs as possible to virtual formats;
- Apply for every possible COVID-19 relief opportunity;
- Reach out to funders to ask if we can change program funding to operations;
- Purchase Zoom Pro accounts for all staff;
- Arrange for our offices to be cleaned as if we were a hospital; and
- Keep everyone on the payroll. (Major fundraisers were canceled or postponed. I did not share this significant challenge with anyone other than my wife and our COO. When I learned of approval for the first round of the Payroll Protection Program (PPP), I burst into tears.)
It was early July 2020, and it wasn’t just the pandemic that was weighing heavy on my heart. Racial unrest. An economic crisis. Tornadoes. The loss of loved ones. I was missing everything about my life before all this happened: travel, family, live music, lectures, conferences, poetry gatherings, art shows, and the ritual of going to the office in the morning and coming home at night. I was struggling to see a path forward. I no longer felt that I had control over the course of events that were unfolding.
And then everything changed. When we learned that the students in our Career Pathways program would not be returning to in-person instruction in the fall, we converted our 3,000 sq foot offices into a safe place for them to come and learn remotely. We’re not talking about simply providing broadband WiFi and a Chromebook, although both are important. We are talking about providing a safe place for youth whose homes, for whatever reasons, might not be conducive to learning.
In August, with the support of a rock-solid group of partners, funders, and allies, we purchased acrylic to wrap our learning stations, hand sanitizer, electric thermometers, this cool electrostatic microbial germ killer, and a ton of masks. We opened our doors at 7 am on September 8th and welcomed the first students to MeckEd’s Learning Lab.
It did not take long before we began to understand the rhythm of a high schoolers’ day, especially our seniors. They sign in, have a period of synchronistic learning followed by time to work independently, meaning they are quiet for about an hour, and then they want to either have some fun or just chill. We bought bean bag chairs and set up an old monitor with a PlayStation 4. With the help of a board member, we manifested a ping pong table. Sometimes we watched a movie in the afternoon. Sometimes I’d find them filming elaborate TikTok performances, and I don’t even know what that is.
There are days when we have students taking a gym class in our copy room, language arts in our dining area, math in the development office, and science in another. We’ve had mannequins set up to demonstrate different hairstyles for one of our cosmetology students.
Many, if not all of the young people we serve, are quick to say that MeckEd helped put them on a path to a bright future and opened their eyes to a world of possibility.
If I have one thing to say about the past year, it’s this: To all of the students who attend the Learning Lab, thank you. We may have helped you on your journey, but you saved me. Every day you show us what a world of possibility looks like. Because of you, I get to see the future, and it gives me hope.
In the words of New Jersey native Jon Bon Jovi, “When you can’t do what you do, you do what you can.” Now, I need to go. It’s already 6 am, and our West Charlotte crew will be arriving at 7 am. I want to welcome them with the lights on, doors open, and a warm breakfast.
- Ross Danis
MeckEd’s Career Pathways program seeks to be Mecklenburg County’s premiere college and career readiness program for In-School Youth who face obstacles that limit their access to opportunity.