The Zone after-school program serves students in grades 7-12 in middle schools and high schools around Norfolk, providing homework assistance, gym access, kitchen activities and a safe space for kids after the school bell rings.
Staff members are trained to offer adult support that may be missing in the lives of some teens.
“The most important thing we provide is a mentoring program,” said Alexis Larsen, The Zone’s director of youth support. “Every staff member is trained and assigned students. Every week, mentors are checking in to see how it’s going and just living life with them and supporting them.”
As The Zone continues to grow, its financial need to support its programming has risen. Currently serving an average of 40 students a day, the program has 220 individual students on its roster that mentors might see at various points.
Some of that need is met with support from United Way; around 8% of The Zone’s budget is supported by United Way assistance. This money covers The Zone’s need for rent and utility expenses, allowing more programming to be offered.
“If we didn’t receive United Way funds, it would impact our ability to offer some of our additional programming,” Larsen said. “We would have to use the money we have, taking it from some part of our budget to pay our rent and utilities. We’d have to move money around, and we probably wouldn’t be able to offer additional programming.”
That programming is part of what allows The Zone to connect with and have an impact on students.
“The Zone has impacted my life because it’s given me a chance to open up to new people and meet new friends,” said Kirsten Schmuecker. “I feel like they’re my unpaid therapist, which I love so much because they’re so easy to talk to and they’re real with you. They just tell you how it is.”
Connecting has been challenging during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’re not the public school system, but we still follow their rules,” Larsen said. “When they closed down, we closed down. We were still trying to make connections, so we would call them or FaceTime with them to just check in.”
When summer came, meetings began to take place in limited capacity to ensure the well-being of program participants.
“We opened up very lightly last summer,” Larsen said. “We took the kids into hammocks and just spaced out on the trees or sat on blankets. I think their mental health was really affected, and so for them wanting to go out and hang out with us, the motivation probably lowered.”
The result has been a decrease in participation. This summer, The Zone focused on social and emotional well-being.
“All summer we would do circles where we were talking about how they are coping and what are some of the things that they’re feeling and how we can deal with all these feelings,” Larsen said. “That’s another service that we offer to make sure that they’re mentally well.”