Navigating the Pandemic, One Child at a Time

September 2020

Navigating the Pandemic, One Child at a Time

By Leigh Dym, Executive Director, STEAMpark, INC


I’m the executive director of STEAMpark, INC, a NJ-based nonprofit that provides educational, emotional and wellness support to underserved kids through programs that take place when school is out, especially important during this time. Normally our programs are held in-person at schools, churches, libraries and other community based locations; but with the closure of these spaces, we’ve pivoted to online classrooms as quickly as possible and tried to help our client families navigate as best we could.

As a first order of business, we took our STEMgirls Online! Fall 2020
online, teaching computer programming and core-content-aligned, hands-on lessons to 8- to 14-year old girls.
We provided supplies, meals, virtual homework helpers, and more. We worked through the complexities of bringing together girls from different zip codes, abilities, cultural norms, and socio-emotional needs. By the end of the summer, new (virtual) friendships were formed and 130 young girls from 36 different towns had achieved different levels of proficiency in writing computer programs unassisted, using JavaScript. The vast majority of these girls had zero coding skills at the onset; but by summer’s end, they were calling themselves coders. One of the biggest surprises of this program came to us via the end-of-summer surveys. What did the girls treasure most? That the STEMgirls program had taught them valuable information/skills, gave them confidence, and offered a virtual environment that made them feel safe.


We also have a special place in our hearts for the Keansburg School District, where we’ve been running programs for the past three years. With a newly-formed Covid-19 task force of community members and thought leaders, we supported all of Keansburg’s 3- to 7- year olds with “STEAMpark Survival Kits” consisting of school supplies, worksheets, craft kits, snacks, and info for caregivers. Our volunteers assembled close to one thousand bags and went door-to-door in masks and gloves, making deliveries and listening to the needs of these hardworking, resilient families. What a treat to see the happy faces!

Throughout the summer, we assisted young families in finding help: determining where to find food and jobs; understanding their housing rights and how to get counseling; and what to do if they had no insurance. We also loaned out Chromebooks and hosted a virtual STEAMpark Summer Learning Camp for kids 4-to 7-years old, with free private tutoring by certified teachers, daily meals, books, and goodies in weekly camper kits aligned with our educational Zoom classes.

Although all of that might sound awesome, it felt like we were handing out oars to people in deep water without boats. Parents struggling to put food on the table don’t have the skills or the bandwidth to help a young child navigate Zoom classes, nor do some even see the point of it all. We thought private tutoring would help give caregivers a break, but some just didn’t want the hassle. Group classes on Zoom were one thing, but to some, private tutoring meant that someone might be judging their parenting abilities, or looking into their chaotic homes. At times, it was a huge struggle to simply help kids and caregivers figure out how to log on, click links and other computer basics, without them getting frustrated and shutting down. We got a phone call once from a mom who said her 6-year-old changed her password and mom didn’t know how to change it back. Another child was being raised by an older family member (who had no cell phone or computer skills) because the parent had recently died due to drug-related issues. We had a few children whose attendance in our Zoom classes was consistent, and then suddenly stopped. Why? They’d been using a neighbor’s Wi-Fi, but that neighbor died mid-July.

An issue that constantly plagues children from underserved communities also reared its ugly head this summer in countless households across the country… the fact that, due to the stress of issues such as insecure housing/food, many children struggle with self-regulation. They’re unable to follow directions and work toward a goal by completing sequential tasks. You may be thinking that I’ve just described all young children; but children from underserved communities have situational factors that make it much worse. Many enroll in kindergarten having never slept in a real bed or eaten at a dining room table. So when learning gets switched to virtual, this makes the caregiver’s task of getting (and keeping) a child in class almost impossible; but a young child with nothing to do is also a stressor on the caregiver. This difficult situation can lead to what some have worriedly called the ‘other looming pandemic:’ the potential rise in cases of child abuse; children isolated in their homes with no one to hear their cries.

But schools, nonprofits such as ours, and local communities have worked around the clock, many times collaboratively, to protect and lift young families up. And they’re still doing it.


What felt like a big win for us this summer was the fact that we helped young children learn how to log on to a computer or a virtual class, how to navigate the required tasks of manipulating a keyboard, upload documents onto Google Classroom, and connect with the outside world via virtual field trips. This is proving to be an all too valuable skill in the virtual learning environment that’s been thrust upon us. But it’s also what we at STEAMpark have always believed in: workforce development for the future! Young children who are adept with computer skills at an early age have a leg up on developing coding skills that will help them land jobs and build up their own communities as they reach adulthood.

Another big win from this difficult summer was that we were able to help caregivers of younger children, mostly moms and grandmas, learn how to connect to the internet. (We connected two non-English speaking parents to the Community Affairs Resource Center, who gave them virtual English classes on our STEAMpark Chromebooks at night while their child attended our learning camp during the day.) We helped caregivers build skills to support their kids in navigating the challenging school year that is now upon us. We gave them food, community connections to meet pressing needs, and tools to allow their young children the ability to work non-virtually – scissors, glue, construction paper, sidewalk chalk – so that all they need to provide is imagination.

We also offer joint solutions to pandemic-caused problems by holding hands with other like-minded agencies, businesses and individuals. We couldn’t have helped one family without collaborative partner support. The Bridge of Books Foundation provided 1000+ books and Fulfill donated 2,000+ ‘grab & go’ meals. The Abilities Research Center at Mount Sinai Hospital and Higher Ground provided new Chromebooks and cases to facilitate virtual learning. The John Ben Snow Foundation; the Jules L. Plangere, Jr. Family Foundation, Inc.; and the Carson Foundation all galvanized us with funding for much-needed supplies and technology. Donations came flooding in, many as small as $5.00, from caring individuals and for-profit businesses including RiskFocus, Comport Technologies, and TrackMind Solutions. Community-based organizations such as WEforum and Sportika’s Brainstorm Tutoring raised money, volunteers and awareness. Cakie Dym, a fifteen year old from High Technology High School, raised funds with an online campaign and won a $1,000 grant in the process. This gave new meaning to the old adage, “It takes a community to raise a child.”

I wish I could say that the worst is behind us; and hopefully it is, but we now have to be vigilant in our attempt to level the playing field for all children. Let’s keep working hard together, so we can confidently say that the best is yet to come. Here’s wishing you good health and the joy of being able to help others when they need it the most.