Covenant House Alaska Staff: First Responders to COVID-19

Kendalyn Mckisick Events

Keeping 140 vulnerable adolescents hunkered down with 6 feet between them at all times is not an easy task. Our staff have become first responders to COVID-19, protecting our most vulnerable population while also protecting others in our beloved community. Keeping youth from exposure and keeping them informed is a matter of life and death; “although young people don’t usually die from this virus, you can save others who do have a higher risk of dying by staying inside and avoiding contact with others,” staff remind youth every day.

Our youth are not experiencing the outcomes of COVID-19 in the same way that other young people are, because they are also experiencing the personal crisis of homelessness. As they struggle to adapt to this new way of life, we recognize the importance of providing shelter and a healthy environment to keep them inside as much as possible. To do so and flatten the curve, all hands are on deck, though some hands are from a distance. One frontline staff shared their feelings about their experience during this time, “everyone is screened upon entering the building and we keep them inside unless it is absolutely necessary that they go out, but like many young people, our youth haven’t really understood the severity of the virus. That is one of the scariest things about coming in to the building to work each day. As much as we wish we could make them stay inside at all times, it is just unrealistic—they have jobs and errands to take care.”

One fear youth have right now is not being able to see or get in touch with their families—this has been especially difficult for youth whose families are also homeless. They’ve had more difficulty in maintaining employment because of the closure of the bus line, while those looking for employment have been limited to finding something within walking distance. They’ve had limited connection to others—normally, the building is bustling with admin staff, mentors, donors, and warm volunteers who come in to support youth with a variety of offerings, such as therapy dogs, regular art classes, birthday celebrations, guided meditation, music lessons, hot soup, clothing, conversation, and more. But lately, it is quiet because those people are no longer entering the building. Except for a skeletal group of direct care staff and residents, it has been empty. Staff and youth are relying on themselves and each other.

Staff are working hard to fill the big holes that are being felt in the absence of outside community supporters. Looking on the brighter side of things, one youth said “now that I can’t go to the mall to hang out with friends or go to the movies or even see my friends at school, I have realized that there actually are fun staff and other residents to hang out with in the building. I used to think I had to get out of the building to have a good time and be around friends, but now I see that I have friends all around me at Covey.” Earlier this week, youth got together to make crafts to show gratitude to staff. One youth drew flowers and hearts around a message saying, “Thank you 4 not forgetting us, we love you!” Many youth have mentioned how thankful they are that Covey’s doors are still open to those needing shelter in a time where no one else is welcoming in strangers, and have even noticed staff being more attentive to their needs.

Like many other organizations in the community, we are facing an unprecedented and unusual situation. And we’ve grappled with a number of questions: How do you manage this many youth in one place, contending with each individual’s needs and desires? How do you keep them happy and feeling hopeful for the future? How do you show them the love they need to get through this situation while they also work to overcome other obstacles? How do you let them know that they will be ok?

When we look at what our staff do to keep our youth calm and safe, we see a tremendous effort and relentless passion. They have multiplied outreach efforts to retrieve youth from outdoor camps and congregational areas where physical distancing is impossible and safety gear is not available. They have helped engage youth with activities like group workout routines, tie dying t-shirts, playing games, and making TikTok videos. They are providing meals to youth who do not live on site by implementing a food service grab-and-go pick-up through the café door at our youth engagement center. They have continued to coordinate education and employment for youth by providing learning activities in the computer lab and they have coordinated homework delivery systems with ASD that work well for youth who are in school. They have made themselves available to cover shifts ranging over a 24-hour period every single day of the week. Our doors have not once closed, our soup pot has not once gone empty, and every meal (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) continues to be provided each day.

Staff continue to show up to keep youth safe, healthy, and entertained, even if it means leaving their own families and putting themselves at risk. Back at home, they are missing out on hugs from their own children just in case they might have been exposed to coronavirus at work, to ensure their children’s safety. They are shifting their schedules as needed, working overnights even though they usually work day shifts. While they watch the majority of people around the world stay home, they show up each day with their masks on, ready to care for 140 youth each day, while also helping each other. Stop and consider that our front line staff have been coming to work every day, to be sure youth in our community continue to have a safe place to sleep, food to eat, and access to a shower & clean clothes. Please help us continue our work. Give what you can at