The mission of 4-H is to develop citizenship, leadership, responsibility and life skills in youth through experiential learning programs and a positive approach, tapping into the organizations’ original motto of “head, heart, hands, and health.”
With COVID-19, no part of that goal has changed — though the way the program coordinators are making it happen has.
“There are a lot of kids out there with that void for the summer, a lot has been canceled or changed in their world,” said Tracy Ignaszewski, the program coordinator for the Steele County 4-H. “We starting talking and thinking as an area, maybe there are other things and ways that we can still connect.”
Working in collaboration with the 4-H groups in Waseca, Rice and Freeborn counties, virtual programs have started popping up in the area to continue to serve 4-H students and promote the organizations values and goals. Taking the same approach as many companies, municipal boards, and civic groups, the 4-H crew has resorted to Zoom conference calls as a way to connect with area children.
“I’m not sure if I was inspired by something or if it just kind of came to me,” said Amy Nelson, the program coordinator for the Waseca County 4-H, who started a virtual supper club for the local 4-H kids. “Some of the challenges for our youth is that they may not have access to supplies, and when we are face-to-face we can solve that by bringing our tote of stuff with them. But, everyone needs to eat, and families are at home – so it seemed like a no-brainer to work on some cooking skills that will be lifelong.”
For the last couple of weeks, Nelson has logged on to Zoom to walk through the process of cooking a meal from the very beginning to the end. She said that registered participants are given the recipe and ingredients list a few days prior to the meeting so that they can be prepared for the virtual cooking session.
“Of course being face-to-face would be more fun, but this has been really fun,” Nelson said. “They are still able to ask questions, when we are chopping vegetables we tilt our screens down so we can see what each other are doing, and we can still interact with one another while teaching some new skills.”
Nelson said that she has been receiving feedback from her Supper Club participants on what they thought of the activity and how their families enjoyed the meals they prepared. She added that seeing parents post on social media about their child’s accomplishment is always fun and gratifying as well.
The Supper Club in Waseca County has been going over so well that Ignaszewski is adapting the program for Steele County 4-H kids, as well as any area child who would like to participate. While the meals are cooking, the group will hear from featured speakers or learn a different lesson related to culinary arts, nutrition, or even budgeting.
“These are the type of things we can easily open up to our neighboring counties,” Ignaszewski said. “If we have to do a Zoom call for 40 kids, why not do it for 60 and be able to all do it together. With that kind of outreach we will be able to serve more kids.”
Ignaszewski said the Steele County 4-H group has already utilized Zoom for other programs with the kids, including a Super Science Saturday that took place at the end of April. That weekend, 45 kids from Steele County received a science kit in the mail and signed on to the video chat platform to do a lesson together.
In Rice County, 4-H Program Coordinator Kelly Chadwick said they kicked off their virtual programs by providing an interactive 30-day challenge via social media. Chadwick said that the challenge promoted kids interaction with their families and finding different things to do.
“We’re always looking for new challenges to put out there and keep the kids busy trying different things,” Chadwick said. “It’s tough for us to not be in person working with the kids, it’s a huge part of our job, but a lot of good things are already out there so we don’t have to recreate the wheel as we provide different opportunities for our kids.”
Chadwick agrees that it’s hard not to be able to continue to connect in-person with the kids she serves, it has been amazing to see how the organizations are able to be innovative while staying true to the 4-H mission.
“This all just speaks to what 4-H is all about,” Chadwick said. “It’s just ringing true to what our organization believes in, we’re just doing it a bit differently now.”
One thing that the 4-H groups have always provided that they are determined to continue is the annual 4-H camp. While they won’t be having an in-person camp, Ignaszewski said that they are gearing up to provide a virtual camp from June 15-17.
“Camp will still happen,” said an excited Ignaszewski. “We have 15 counselors who are putting together lessons and will be sending out videos, connecting on Zoom, providing virtual campfires with singing, and even sending out videos of them beating on some pots and pans to wake up the campers and get them out of bed in the morning.”
With the programming taking on such a different look virtually, Nelson admitted that it was intimidating at first, but that it’s evolved into something fun and potentially permanent in some areas of the 4-H world.
“It has been interesting to see how this has shaped our programming,” Nelson said. “I don’t think a lot of people considered doing our work this way, but there is a lot we can do know when we can’t get together because of schedules.”
Ignaszewski agreed that the silver-lining of being apart has shown what the future of 4-H could look like.
“This forced us to look at and do things differently,” Ignaszewski said. “But some of these things might really work, and hopefully some of this stuff will stick when we look at next year.”
Mental health professional Susan Arnold knew that her students at Blooming Prairie High School would need increased support during COVID-19. However, she didn’t realize at first that so many of them were essential workers — adding another layer of stress to their experience during the pandemic.
“I went in a little bit blindly, thinking that kids would need support with school work, distance learning and the loss of traditional end-of-year activities,” said Arnold. “In the process of touching base with them, it became obvious really quickly that a lot of these teens are essential workers … they have a lot more to worry about than just their schooling.”
An employee of the South Central Human Relations Center in Owatonna, Arnold has worked in Blooming Prairie since 2015 as a school-linked mental health therapist — meeting with roughly 30 students on a regular basis. Of the teens that she continues to see virtually, she said a large number work in grocery stores, big-box stores and even nursing homes in the community.
“Everyone was so focused on how we could get the learning done, that it was forgotten that there’s a whole other piece to their lives that could include work,” she added. “A lot of [students] were experiencing a new feeling of stress and it was hard to pin down, why they were feeling so stressed. They still had school, their parents were home more often, they still had jobs.”
In an attempt to verbalize what they were experiencing, Arnold added that many students saw their jobs as something they were going to do and something that they needed to do. Owatonna High School counselor Tami Langlois seconded this, saying it seems the number of student workers has grown slightly in recent years due to necessity.
“Our kids have more responsibilities,” she added, “and sometimes it does mean holding a job to help support their own families or to help pay for college.”
New responsibilities during pandemic
In her role as counselor, Langlois said she provides both college and career advice, as well as social and emotional support when classes are in session. During the past month-and-a-half of distance learning, she added the social-emotional component has skyrocketed. Since late March, she estimated that the number of students she’s been working with has nearly doubled, due to an uptick in interest and outreach by the counseling department during the pandemic.
Of the teens she works with, Langlois said that likely just under half hold jobs outside of school, although she hasn’t had many discussions with essential student workers this spring. The one conversation that sticks out in her mind was a student who has been seeing his hours increase as other employees are unable or unwilling to come in to work — something he sees as a positive, but which has made it more difficult to balance his job with distance learning.
Nancy Williams, Owatonna High School school social worker, said she is currently working with a number of teens who are still on the job. Although many tend to work in retail and food service, she said older students also regularly get jobs in nursing homes and care facilities.
“I was visiting with a student who said, ‘It’s hard for me as a worker to watch elderly people pass away in our care facility with no relatives around. We’re the people that have to be there in their place,’” she recalled, noting that the death wasn’t pandemic-related. “An 18-year-old student is taking the place of a daughter or a granddaughter, because the family can’t be there.”
Students who are living with older or at-risk relatives have been feeling additional pressure, Williams added, saying that concern for grandparents or especially vulnerable family members is mentioned frequently by teens.
Guidance scarce in unprecedented time
An additional challenge, according to Williams, is the fact that older adults don’t have much guidance to offer on a situation that’s unprecedented in recent history. Having worked in the district for almost 30 years, she added that staff members haven’t been in a situation like this before either, making it harder to let students know what the future might hold.
“We do that a lot with kids, especially as they’re entering adulthood, help them figure out what their next steps are,” she said. “We’re typically able to walk them through the transition, having helped kids through it year after year … but we’re stuck in this place right now where they’re looking for adults to give them reassurance and answers, and there’s so much we don’t know ourselves.”
Arnold added that the lack of recent precedent for COVID-19 has also had a direct impact on students in the workforce. “They’re being asked to consider some things that even adults don’t have an answer for,” she added, of decisions that need to be made around personal protective equipment and worker safety.
While many students take jobs out of necessity, she added that for some it’s also a fun way to meet new people and connect with friends. Now, Arnold said, that enjoyable aspect of a first job has disappeared. While trying to help teens through the added stress of being a student and an essential worker, Arnold said it has been helpful to reframe their role at work.
“They saw it more as, they’re going to do what they need to do, and less as they’re making a huge sacrifice for their community,” she said. “Once we were able to reframe it so they could see how much they were actually doing, it shifted the anxiety a little bit.”
Still, counselors say the trauma of the pandemic — and of needing to report to work in-person during COVID-19 — will be something that is hard for many teens to move on from, especially those who have already experienced trauma in their lives.
“There’s definitely been an uptick in some anxiety and depression symptoms,” said Williams. “For kids that already struggle with mental health-related symptoms and other life factors that are difficult — including chemical health issues or poverty or abuse within their homes — you’ve just added more and more trauma to their lives, that will be harder for them to rise above and move on from.”
During the pandemic, school counselors, social workers and mental health professionals continue to check in regularly with students via email and video call. Despite the obstacles, Langlois said she is proud of her colleagues and the work that they’re doing to try and alleviate some of the distance learning pressure on teens who are having to adapt to a variety of new challenges.
“I’m proud of our district and how teachers continue to be so incredibly supportive of students,” she added, “but I’m mostly proud of our students for doing something so challenging.”
Owatonna Public Schools will continue its popular Coffee and Conversation series with Superintendent Jeff Elstad Friday morning via video call. Participants can join in from home, hear an update on distance learning and ask any questions they may have about the district’s response to COVID-19.
Elstad said he plans to discuss remote classes, meal provision and child care. By the end of the week, he’s hoping to have more information on what the district’s summer programming will look like. At an April 27 school board meeting, Elstad said credit recovery opportunities for high school students were a priority heading into the break, but that the fate of programs for the district’s younger students was less certain.
Of the decision to continue the Coffee and Conversation series — which initially began as a way to meet with community members ahead of the high school building bond referendum — virtually, Elstad said he figured residents may have a number of lingering questions on what distance learning looks like and what the next few months may entail for the district.
“I’m also sure with a lot of the things people are hearing around budget reductions, people might wonder about potential impacts that may have on school budgeting,” he added. “I just want to make myself available to answer questions.”
Other topics on many district residents’ minds include an end-of-year timeline and graduation plans — both of which the district has worked to solidify in recent days. Elstad said an email went out to families a little over a week ago, notifying them that there would be no new distance learning after May 22. The remaining time through the end of the school year on June 5 will be used to collect district-owned technology, and hopefully provide a little typical capstone fun, like virtual picnics and field trips, for elementary students.
When it comes to graduation, high school administrators have sent out a survey to seniors asking them to vote on potential options. Elstad added that these will come down to either doing an entirely virtual ceremony, or having a type of drive-in graduation in a parking lot or open area.
“With the options we have available, [Principal Kory Kath] wanted students to be able to vote,” said Elstad. “He’s collecting that information right now, and I may be able to share more about that on Friday.”
After sharing an update, Elstad said he would field any questions community members might have. District residents who are interested in participating are encouraged to RSVP by Wednesday afternoon to get meeting details.
Owatonna police arrested a man last week they say is involved in a series of automobile thefts that began in April.
Khadar Olad Mohamud, 22, of Owatonna, is charged in Steele County District Court with five felony counts of motor vehicle theft as well as third-degree burglary, and one misdemeanor count of tampering with a motor vehicle.
Police stated in a press release that Mohamud has been linked to five stolen vehicles, a Riverland Community College burglary and motor vehicle tampering at a local restaurant.
“Our officers and detectives have been working hard on these cases and had identified a person of interest,” police stated. “On Wednesday, a report came in of a person tampering with a vehicle at Domino’s Pizza. The suspect matched the description of the person of interest and he had just been seen in the area by a patrol officer.”
Court documents state the motor vehicle thefts Mohamud is implicated in include:
• The April 5 theft of a Chevy Cruz from Caribou Coffee in Owatonna.
• The April 6 theft of a GMC Sierra from Riverland Community College’s Owatonna campus. The vehicle was found in a parking stall adjacent to 435 16th St. NE.
• The April 24 theft of a Dodge Avenger from Kwik Trip on Mineral Springs Road in Owatonna. A Toyota Highlander was reported stolen from the same Kwik Trip the following day. Lakeville police recovered the stolen Highlander April 27 at a strip mall after a complaint regarding a male trying to enter vehicles in a nearby gas station parking lot. Mohamud was then arrested.
• The early May theft of a Chevy Cobalt from Hy-Vee in Owatonna.
In a separate case, Mohamud is charged with misdemeanor theft after he allegedly posed as a new employee needing to receive paperwork and stole cash from a binder belonging to an Owatonna group home May 5.