RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- A nonprofit serving Raleigh's marginalized communities is vowing to keep up the work of its afterschool program to keep students from falling further behind amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
Neighbor to Neighbor, headquartered in downtown Raleigh with a predominantly Spanish-speaking location in north Raleigh, has served low-income families for more than two decades.
Royce Hathcock, executive director of Neighbor to Neighbor said the non-profit shouldn't exist, but it does because people are falling through the cracks.
"We do get concerned -- the amount of resources it takes," he said. "It's going to take more. It's going to take more for this COVID generation of kids that are going to fall deeper into the cracks."
Leaders say the mission of Neighbor to Neighbor's afterschool program is to walk alongside Raleigh's most marginalized students, not only providing tutoring, but through mentorship, helping them find and hone their passions and life skills.
"Because of the pandemic, it's changed everything radically," Hathcock said.
The heavily relational organization was forced into all-virtual operations last spring. Staffers were able to get students the technology they needed to stay connected, but said the damage was quickly done.
"I have been and still am really worried about how far they can get behind," said Melanie Gering, Language Arts Coordinator.
Gering and Kate Johnson, Neighbor to Neighbor's Math Coordinator, said students entering the program performing below grade level in reading and math used to catch right up with their peers.
"Not only that," Johnson said. "They have so much confidence in what they're doing, they're leading the class."
But now, as Neighbor to Neighbor is in its winter break, awaiting the start of a new semester, "Those same children that were in that mode, are struggling," Johnson said.
The students served through the afterschool program are vulnerable, staffers said. Some students are experiencing homelessness and even with safety protocols in place are unable to meet in-person because of family health concerns.
"What worries me is this long-term chronic stress," Johnson said. "They're already in a stressful environment because they're marginalized and now on top of that, we're adding all this additional stress."
Hathcock said through outreach, the organizations is retaining as many of the roughly 80 students in its after school program as possible and encouraging the mentors volunteering their time.
"It's getting back to the basics of just trying to love well, get the people here we can get, try to let their mentors know that not only do we appreciate you coming, but what you do right now every day is probably more critical than ever before, that you show up, you're proximate, you're present, you're loving and caring and you're going to walk with that student today and the pile of things they feel is not going well," Hathcock said.
That, after all, staff said, is what neighboring is all about.
"In hopefully 20 years from now, someone will look back and say, hey, I remember this place," Johnson said. "I was loved there. I was safe there. Even though I wasn't doing very well, they encouraged me, they loved me where I was at and they walked with me through it."
Neighbor to Neighbor is looking ahead to the challenges it will face through the winter months, including the need for heaters for their tent set up on the downtown property to accommodate social distancing.
You can learn more and donate to Neighbor to Neighbor through their website.