Those four digits bring up a myriad of feelings for everyone who lived through the year that will be forever remembered in the annals of history.

The year started off ominous enough with the Australian bushfires, the tragic death of Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others. Promising young lives cut short and a legend lost. It seems 2020 was trying to get us ready for something none of us could have ever imagined.

News started trickling in about a virus that could threaten the world. We’re the United States, we thought, there’s no way it could ever affect us. The coronavirus was a world away, in a Chinese province that many of us never heard of. We planned, thinking about summer camps, graduations, proms, vacations, cookouts with friends and family, trips to the beach.

They say when you make plans, God laughs. That saying never hit me like it did last year. The virus creeped closer and closer. It was like a wave growing in the distance, and you couldn’t really tell how big it was until it came crashing on the shore, and it’s too late to run. The next thing you know, you’re drowning, not knowing which way is up or if there is any hope to get out.

In the first few weeks of the pandemic, I lost my stepfather to COVID. He was stuck in Yemen and could not travel home because of travel restrictions. He traveled to Yemen with my mother to meet his grandchildren for the first time. My mother was able to travel back just before the pandemic hit. He stayed a few extra weeks to spend more time with his family. He fell ill and could not travel back. Unfortunately, he was diagnosed with COVID and passed away a few days later. We were a world away and could not help. We couldn’t see him one last time, talk to him one last time. We couldn’t be there to say our final goodbyes when he was buried. It was devastating.

This person who brought so much joy and love to our family was lost to us forever.

As bad as it was for me and my family, my first thoughts went to our young people, and the thousands of members who call the Boys & Girls Club their home away from home, here in Allegheny County. As a former Club kid and lifelong staff member who has spent almost every day of his life at a Club, I know what the Club means to them. What it meant to me. The kids who depend on us because they know they will be greeted by a smiling face, a loving nickname, a warm meal. A place where they can feel safe, where they can be recognized for their achievements. A place where they feel useful and have influence in a world where they have little influence.

Juan Perez, senior director of program excellence at Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania's Carnegie clubhouse, plays foosball with 8-year-old Dennis Moehring on March 3. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)
Juan Perez, senior director of program excellence at Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania’s Carnegie clubhouse, plays foosball with 8-year-old Dennis Moehring on March 3. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

What are they going to do? Where are they going to go? Who is going to be that supportive ear when things at home are tough? It broke my heart.

I grew up in the Boys & Girls Clubs. My home Club was the Lincoln Sq. Boys Club in Worcester, Ma. Once that Clubhouse closed, I helped establish a Clubhouse in Plumley Village housing development where I grew up. In 2005, I moved to Pittsburgh with my family to help establish a mosque with a few friends of mine. I promptly reached out to the local Boys & Girls Club and luck would have it that they were looking for a director for their new Clubhouse in Duquesne, Pennsylvania. It seemed like divine intervention.

I have spent almost every day of my life in a Boys & Girls Club. The two months we were shut down right after the pandemic hit Allegheny County was the longest amount of time I have spent away from the Clubs. The first day I walked back into the Club was cathartic. It felt like a breath of fresh air. There were no kids in the building. We had not begun operations of programming yet. We were mobilizing hygiene supplies to serve our members the best we could.  Being in the place that impacted my life so deeply with the opportunity to do something to impact the lives of others when they needed it the most. This is what I was built for. This is what the Club taught me.

I am fortunate enough to work with a group of people who care deeply about our youth. The type of people who are willing to do whatever it takes to have a positive impact on the lives of our kids and their communities. The type of people who jump to action when needed.

That’s what we did. We created, we innovated and activated. We created virtual Clubhouses where kids could connect with other members throughout the city. Children joined us virtually from various parts of the city and all from different Clubhouses. They were unified by the love of the Clubs and their need for connection. We played, learned and cried. We leaned on each other as we adapted to this new way of life.

We found partners such as Lowe’s that helped us deliver hygiene and cleaning supplies to over 1,000 families across Western Pennsylvania. Our Clubhouse in Carnegie, Pa.,  turned into hubs that created packages full of hand sanitizer, cleaning supplies, hygiene products. Our van was being used to deliver hygiene and cleaning supplies to our families. And after a few trips, the van started being recognized by people in the community. Kids would run beside it when I pulled up to their house.

There were so many people putting in work behind the scenes to make it all possible. I was lucky enough to be out in the field and see the impact. I got to see that hope we all needed.

One day, driving through Mckeesport it all hit me, remembering where I was as a young person and how difficult it would have been for me dealing with the food insecurity, financial instability. The uncertainty of what tomorrow brings was the norm for me and kids that grew up where I did but this pandemic heightened everything. What type of situation would I have been in if I lived through this? I pulled the van over and started crying. It wasn’t just sadness that overtook me. It was hope, joy, despair, urgency. The emotions hit me all at once. It grounded me because we were doing whatever it took to be a solution. That was something to be thankful for in a time things to be thankful for were hard to come by.

I went home every day and shared the stories with my family, coworkers. What was going on was too big to keep to myself.

Juan Perez is senior director of program excellence at Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania's Carnegie clubhouse. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)
Juan Perez is senior director of program excellence at Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania’s Carnegie clubhouse. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

The work continued. We were able to open up summer camp at our Clubhouses in Carnegie, Lawrenceville and Millvale for the kids following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At first, we worried that it was going to be too much for the kids to deal with. How could they keep social distancing and wear masks when it was against their nature? As always, their resiliency never ceased to amaze us. They wore their masks and kept their distance because they wanted to be around their friends. They understood how important it was.

We were able to make it through the summer with no COVID cases. We were able to provide a sense of normalcy in a world that was anything but normal — a world with people protesting for basic human rights to not be killed in the street and a pandemic that did not care who you were. Through all this, we gave them a positive place to go in a negative world.

If this was the end of the story, it would be a tale that had it all. Unfortunately, it isn’t.

Because we were providing kids a place to go while parents were at work and they needed their school work to be done, I got to see the inequity of the pandemic. There were kids in certain school districts that had resources others did not. Some kids had top of the line devices, others had to share an iPad with siblings. The inequity that reared its head when George Floyd was murdered by those who were sworn to serve and protect us had found its way onto our doorstep. The form is different, but the inequity is the same, putting obstacles in the lives of our young people based on their race and where they’re from.

Fortunately, we are there for them. We have been tested and proven to be up to the challenge, regardless of the challenge. We could show them that no matter what obstacle they face they can overcome. Not just because they had us, but because we had each other. The world isn’t perfect, we are not even close to having things back to normal but there is hope and a little hope can go a long way.

Juan Perez is the senior director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pa. He can be reached at J_perez@bgcwpa.org.

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