EDITOR’S NOTE: The Niagara Gazette is once again partnering with the United Way of Greater Niagara to showcase local groups receiving support from the United Way.

Established in 1973, Youth Mentoring Services (YMS) provides social-emotional learning and other forms of support for children of low-income households across Niagara County. As a United Way of Greater Niagara partner agency, YMS can always rely on Untied Way, especially when a crisis hits our community.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck Western New York this past March, regular programming at YMS was suspended. At the same time, the pandemic affected working parents — especially working women. According to  the U.S. Census Bureau, 1 in 5 working-age adults say they are not working because the pandemic derailed existing childcare setups. About 32 percent of women ages 25 to 44 compared to 12 percent of men in the same age group are not working because of childcare concerns.

Because of United Way, YMS was able to immediately offer Step Up, a multifaceted educational program for school-aged children of essential workers.

Step Up implements safety measures from the CDC to mitigate risk, including health screenings of parents and children; daily temperature checks; small group learning; regular handwashing; and thorough disinfection of learning spaces. The program encompasses time for online instruction; homework help; social emotional learning (literacy-based for Kindergarten through grade 3 and STEM-based for children in grades 4-6); science-based curriculum (nature activities); crafts; free time; and activities with a physical component.

Step Up is designed to meet the needs of both parents and children during this difficult time. Because the program is available to children from multiple school districts, including Lockport, Starpoint, Roy-Hart, Newfane, Wilson, and Barker – a flexible schedule is available. Some children attend three days per week – opposite their in-school instruction. Others attend every other day – when they are not in school. Some families prefer one day per week to give parents working from home a break. For instance, a family with five school-aged children needed the program for one day when the father was having surgery.

Step Up is provided as a community resource to meet the evolving needs of parents and their children during the COVID-19 pandemic. The relief we were able to provide parents during this time of uncertainty allowed so many of our region’s essential workers to access childcare support when they needed it most. In addition, as parent return to work, Step Up is available as an alternative to other means of childcare. Safe childcare is a necessity for essential workers and all parents that need to get back to the workplace.

Thanks to funds from United Way of Greater Niagara, YMS can meet the growing needs of the community by providing services year-round and during times of crisis. YMS is so appreciative of United Way’s role in our region. By donating to this year’s campaign, you’ll support dozens of organizations like Youth Mentoring Services, right here in Niagara County.

Sue Capell is the executive director/CEO of Youth Mentoring Services of Niagara County. To learn more about Youth Mentoring Services, call (716) 434-1855 or visit www.youthmentoringservicesniagara.org.

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