By Renard Monroe, Executive Director of Youth 1st
Youth 1st is located in the OMI/Lakeview community. We operate out of the Merced Heights Playground, and have been serving this community for 22 years. I used to work with San Francisco Weed and Seed, and founded Youth 1st after Mayor Willie Brown invited me to create a safe place for youth to learn and grow.
Youth 1st provides services year-round for youth ages 5 to 17. During the school year, we operate an afterschool program which is open Monday through Friday from 1pm to 6pm. We provide the following programming: homework assistance, Read to Win, meditation, skateboarding, boxing, STEM, youth mentoring, cooking classes, and recreation. During the summer, we operate a full summer program which is open Monday through Friday form 8:30am to 5:30pm. While keeping the same key aspects of our afterschool program, we add in karate, basketball, arts and crafts, and have two field trips per week. During the summer, we hire credentialed school teachers and keep a low student to teacher ratio. Youth 1st is free to all participants year around.
The pandemic changed the way we think, work and live. When the city was shut down in March of 2020, Youth 1st delivered school supplies and reached out to our participants and families through online means and home visits. Youth 1st operated a small cohort of 12 participants during the summer of 2020, and we remained in contact with our participants through August 2020. At that time, DCYF asked Youth 1st to operate as a Community Learning Hub to offer in-person instruction to combat learning loss. Youth 1st found out first hand that we needed to pivot services in order to continue to serve our kids and the community. As a Community Learning Hub, we safely served 16 youth in person and 20 youth virtually during the school day. We supplied laptops and internet access and supported and facilitated students with their online school classes and schoolwork. Youth 1st also provided three meals daily to our in-person participants, and delivered meals to those participants who did not attend in person. While we delivered supplies, we were able to check in with students and monitor their mental well-being.
One of the most important aspects of us being open for in-person programming was that we were able to provide a space where kids could connect with their friends and socialize, which was something that they desperately needed. Our enrollment was limited to 16 due to the shutdown rules — only half of our enrollment prior to the shutdown. This limit made it even more important for us to continue our relationship with our participants during the supply deliveries and our mental well-being check-ins.
In addition to the daily activities with our youth, we provided groceries, grocery gift cards, PPE, and other essentials for our community. Youth 1st collaborated with other community partners to run a weekly food pantry and a COVID testing site. This site is still in operation and now administers vaccines as well as COVID tests.
During the pandemic, we even started a new ongoing program at Youth 1st. We noticed that student athletes needed support making the transition from high school to college, so we began a Student Athlete Academy. Our academy supports student athletes with tutoring, mentoring, and financial assistance for costs associated with moving into college. Our first academy took place in December 2020.
We pride ourselves on not only working with our kids, but being able to also provide services for the whole family. Families know that they can turn to us in their time of need, and we are able to connect them to resources. During the pandemic, we learned that given the opportunity, we can adjust, adapt and continue the essential work that we do. We also were reminded that people are most important: our participants, our staff, and our community members. Two years after the initial shutdown, we are back to a packed afterschool and summer program. Our kids are thriving, and we love that we are a part of that. If we had more space, we could fill up two more Youth 1st’s. That is a challenge that we hope one day to address.
We are a staple in our community. We have kids in our program whose parents came through our program years before. San Francisco has changed in many ways over those same years. It’s a nice feeling to know we can serve generations of the same family on one end, and also adapt to the new and shifting population of San Francisco.
San Francisco is a great place to live and work, but it’s all of our responsibilities to make it so families can afford to stay and thrive here. There should be equity for all no matter what race you are or community you come from. The pandemic shined a light on how resources are not equally distributed in our communities. Our city can and should do a better job of allocating funds where they’re needed most. We need to be intentional in restoring and reviving San Francisco communities.
The key to Youth 1st’s success is that we put relationships with our kids and our community first. We have also been willing to adapt and meet the needs of the people we serve. And we will continue to do that. Youth 1st will continue to grow and flourish with the support of the city and DCYF.