Have you ever tried writing an essay on a tiny phone screen? Or in a noisy, cramped household? It seems impossible, but that is the reality some students are facing. Distance learning is widening the educational gap between more resourced, affluent students and low-income students but the Sacramento Youth Center (SYC) is doing all that it can to reverse its effects. 

In 2019, Raquel and Adam Shipp set out to create a nonprofit youth center that would serve underprivileged youth in Sacramento. Now their work is more important than ever. 

The past year has brought on a complete change for students. Some are facing a myriad of challenges schools are not prepared to handle and low-income students will be the first to feel the effects as the equity gap grows.

If a student does not have their own computer or reliable WiFi, they have little hope in keeping up with an online curriculum. Shipp has been noticing that a lot of his students have to go through the entire school day using their phone. 

That is why SYC has fast and reliable WiFi, laptops, and printers ready to be used for free and are offering a space for students to come to during the day. 

Aside from the technological challenges involved, distance learning leaves students with or no place to go during the day — to meet up with friends, to focus on work, to escape a difficult homelife. 

“Leading child welfare experts are warning of increased risks of child abuse” according to Harvard Law Today

“All parents now are suffering extreme stresses related to COVID, including new concerns about their jobs, their housing, and their ability to feed their kids. Those stressors put the children at higher risk of maltreatment.”

The situation is becoming dire as many cases could be going unnoticed now that customary channels of reporting, such as schools, are closed. 

Even in less extreme cases, distance learning can prove to be difficult if the student’s environment is not conducive to long hours of focus. 

Only one in three families have a distraction-free environment for distance learning according to a report from the USC Rossier School of Education and the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. 

To combat this, SYC has launched their day camp where students come into the center, do homework, or just unwind. They are hoping to fill the hole that school has left in students’ lives. 

If for any reason, a student wants to be away from their home, the center is ready to welcome them with free WiFi, couches, a PlayStation, and foosball and ping pong tables.

SYC students can learn how to work in a cafe. (Langstonn Gains)

SYC has also partnered with Uptown Grounds Coffee, a new cafe that opened next door, to create a youth job training program. Students learn how to pull shots, make drinks, and run a cash register. The program is a huge asset on students’ resumes when they look for jobs. 

Their mentoring program connects students with college students ready to support their physical, emotional, and mental health. 

The center focuses on providing underprivileged youth with the resources and support they do not have.

This is a mission that speaks personally to Chelsey Johnson, a SYC mentor. 

“I’ve been underprivileged […] so I personally know what that feels like, and I understand [what] it’s like not having a place to go. It’s so easy, especially in a low income area, to be the product of your environment,” Johnson said. 

She believes the importance of mentorship lies in the way kids often just need someone to keep them accountable. 

“If you have somewhere to go and people who want to help you, then that’s going to help you get in a better direction.”

The youth center also has a special investment in assisting immigrants acclimate to the new American landscape. 

Sahar Baligh, a refugee from Afghanistan, participated in SYC as a high school student and has now returned to work there as a mentor. She described how instrumental the center was in guiding her through schools, scholarships, and jobs.

“I’ve been through the hardship [that you go through] when you first come here. I know what it feels like, so […] I started working at youth center because I want to be that person who helps [new immigrants]”

The center welcomes and supports students from all backgrounds, whether that be low-income households or immigrant families, and their work has been paying off.

“A couple of weeks ago, we got a note from one of the students that said since they were involved in our program in December, it’s turned their life around and they’ve actually had seen aspects of their life completely changed because they’ve [implemented] the skills that we’ve given them,” Shipp explained. 

“It’s those little moments —  it’s emotional. It’s such a huge welling of pride [knowing] that we’re doing the right thing. When we get notes like that, it makes it all worth it.”