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Wellness programming to combat the negative mental health effects of the pandemic.

Over a year into the pandemic, and with COVID-19 restrictions still in place, community rec professionals know prioritizing wellness will be top of mind this year for all members. Below, dive into specialized wellness programming for youth and adult seniors, and a topic that is affecting everyone now more than ever: mental health. 

Youth Programming 

The need for more socialization and less stress during a time of isolation and social distancing, especially for youth members, encouraged the Katz Jewish Community Center in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, to create specialized wellness programs. 

Bryan Lentine, the sports and leagues director at the Katz JCC, created pods for a new program called JPlay for ages three to eight. “This is a program designed to keep children within their pre-existing social pods to minimize contact with others,” said Lentine. “Various games, agility exercises and sports are personally designed for participants.” 

In 2020, the need for a solid immune system, which starts with diet and exercise, was brought to light for many. With childhood obesity already a concern in the U.S., the Katz JCC also developed the Start Up Good And Right (S.U.G.A.R) program for youth in grades three to five to help address obesity and diabetes. 

“This program is designed to empower kids to build life-long, healthy exercise and eating habits,” said Jayne Miller-Morgan, the assistant fitness and wellness director at the Katz JCC. “Fitness classes introduce various forms of exercise such as speed and agility, kickboxing, yoga, Zumba and more. A nutritionist teaches healthy recipes and tips through various games and cooking demos. It’s great for youth with diabetes to learn how to properly exercise while keeping their sugar levels intact.”

While these programs are in person, Miller-Morgan advised not to forget about virtual wellness, and to be proactive with identifying new technologies that make virtual learning easier and fun. 

Senior Programming 

Due to COVID-19 and the inability to hold in-person events, the Louisville Jewish Community Center in Louisville, Kentucky, is placing a large priority on wellness for senior adults. “Seniors need food, supplies and interaction now more than ever,” said Susan Kwasny, the senior director of health and wellness at the Louisville JCC. “While we can’t do a lot in person, delivering to homes, making wellness calls and having activities online can all help seniors stay connected.” 

To help support senior adult members, the Louisville JCC is offering meals delivered to homes, as well as providing education and activity packets. For exercise, the J is offering online fitness classes from chair exercise to gentle yoga. 

To stay on top of potential trends for seniors, Kwasny said she communicates with other community centers around the country. “It’s also important to talk with seniors and hear what they have to say,” she said. “Find out what is important to them and listen to their needs.”

Mental Health 

Understanding the need for mental health support, the YMCA of Greater Seattle in Seattle, Washington, approaches whole person health through a number of services, including counseling. Jeff Rainey, the chief health and social services officer at the Seattle Y, said his team has been doing behavioral health type work for over 15 years. It all started with identifying a need and gap in the community. 

“There’s not many places where you can take your kids, drop them off for swim lessons, go work out and also see your therapist in one stop,” said Rainey. “It builds community, relationships and families. It’s for the whole person.” 

Donnie Goodman, the senior director of behavioral health programs at the Seattle Y, elaborated one of the benefits of members accessing counseling services at the Y helps eliminate a potential negative stigma. “Sometimes it’s easier to tell parents or friends you’re going to work out versus you’re going to therapy,” said Goodman. “It’s just a way for people to be able to access mental health services without feeling a stigma they think others might put on them.” 

Due to expected long-term effects of the pandemic, a need to get out in front of the negative mental health effects by providing support is something the Seattle Y is encouraging for all community rec centers. Sally Sundar, the program executive of health integration and transformation, expressed the concern for children who are experiencing a variety of traumas due to the disruption to their home life, schooling and social well-being. 

“Parents and families often don’t have the training or knowledge they need to identify what kids are struggling with,” said Sundar. “Getting out in front of this is what places like the Y need to be doing.” 

While youth are predominantly susceptible to trauma with these changes, Goodman elaborated the mental health effects of the pandemic are affecting everyone, especially the parents. “Parents are feeling like they’re failing because they’ve lost their jobs, they can’t make the rent and they’re having these extra stresses they want to keep from children to protect them,” said Goodman. “Both sides have this shared overwhelmingness and feeling of hopelessness on a daily basis.” 

Even if your facility is unable to offer counseling services, there’s a number of things you can do to begin helping the community combat negative mental health effects. One important tool Rainey shared is training staff in the trauma-informed approach. 

“Staff have to be able to recognize a lot of the behaviors they’re seeing now are probably a result of the trauma kids went through during the pandemic,” said Rainey. “You don’t have to be a clinical therapist to recognize some of the behaviors you’re seeing, and then point the kid or the family in a direction where they can get support.”

Goodman agreed staff preparation is key and further suggested people should also do what they’re already good at. “Each one of us has skills and restraints, and it’s important we recognize and honor the differences,” he said. “Just like every community has its own unique needs.” 

Along that thread of specific needs, social justice movements that happened simultaneous to the pandemic will also need to be kept in mind. Sundar said this is why helping members feel safe and comfortable addressing their mental health needs will also be important. “Members want services that look like them, as well as reflect them, their cultures, values and their family,” she said. “We can do a lot to normalize the value of accessing mental health support and counseling services.”

In addition to staff training and awareness, if your facility is unable to offer services directly, Sundar suggested co-locating with another organization or facility. By finding a partner or creating a coalition, you can prevent turning away from a need. Goodman also said providing resources such as posters or information on your website that reminds people of the value of behavioral health services will go a long way. 

You may be able to start incorporating a number of these suggestions right away, but Rainey said there are two things you must do first:

  1. Stay true to your organization’s mission.
  2. Take care of yourself. 

“We’ve never been more important,” said Rainey. “But before we can do the work, we have to take care of ourselves.”  

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Brittany Howard

Brittany is the editor of Community Rec Magazine. Reach her at brittany@peakemedia.com.

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