The McHenry County teenager spent a few years living with her grandparents after her parents died from opioid addiction. And then when the pandemic hit, COVID-19 took both her grandmother and grandfather.
With limited options, the girl sought help through Big Brothers Big Sisters of McHenry County, which offered her mentoring. Her grades improved over time, but now that she’s 17, she’s close to aging out of a number of programs that offer her support, Executive Director Leslie Blake said.
That could change, though, thanks to a $1.7 million grant being divvied up among a few organizations across McHenry County. With the funds, Big Brothers Big Sisters will be able to launch a new Big Futures program, which will help her and other young adults with the transition into both the workforce and adulthood.
“This will help a population that has been underserved and because of [the pandemic] has been kind of left in the dark,” Blake said.
Parents and children like her in McHenry County will be getting new types of help thanks to the grant, which, along with new programming, will plug holes in different organizations and deal with the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Acting as a facilitator, United Way of Greater McHenry County will send money from the Advance McHenry County grant to Big Brothers Big Sisters of McHenry County, Community Coordinated Child Care and the Youth and Family Center over the course of the next five years.
Those funds will help the organizations hire new staff to strengthen its services and build on its programming aimed at addressing a variety of issues facing McHenry County families, including mental health challenges or the needs of working families, such as child care.
Approved at last month’s County Board meeting, the funds are through Advance McHenry County, a program set up by the county to distribute federal funds received through the federal COVID-19 relief package called the American Rescue Plan Act.
Since January, the county has approved 20 grants, totaling about $14 million of the nearly $30 million in funds, the county said in a June news release.
“The county’s done a really good job about being thoughtful of using the money to plug the holes and offset the effects of [the pandemic],” local United Way CEO and President Jamie Maravich said.
At Big Brothers Big Sisters, the Crystal Lake-based organization will be able to launch a Big Futures program, which would expand its offerings to young adults 18 to 24 years old, something several other chapters around the country have started, Blake said.
Currently, Big Brother Big Sister pairs youth in need with mentors who provide them with support, through things like helping with homework, playing sports or doing activities, according to its website.
The Big Futures program would provide young adults with guidance on being work and adulthood ready, Blake said.
“These are individuals who needed some extra time because of [the pandemic],” Blake said. “It’ll be less structured mentoring and will be based on needs. Whether it’s work prep or financial need or relationship basis.”
Both Big Brothers Big Sisters and the Youth and Family Center will also be able to hire a new social worker to help with the increased mental health challenges of its clients.
Those challenges came in the form of social isolation, which resulted in anxiety and depression, Blake said. For many children, truancy went up and grades declined.
“[The pandemic] has caused some drastic changes and issues in mental health,” Blake said. “A new social worker will bring a new level of professionalism to our staff.”
The new hire also will help the nonprofit’s other social workers, who, throughout the pandemic, often found themselves spending more and more hours on one case every month, Blake said. The mental health social worker will be able to take on more complex issues, freeing up the others to cover more cases.
The McHenry-based Youth and Family Center, also set to hire a new social worker, seeks to aimed at helping the family as a whole, according to its website. For students, that can mean connecting them with summer and after-school programs to build them emotionally and academically. Parents might be pointed to parenting or language classes.
Following the pandemic, the nonprofit found that more than 40% of parents seeking help through the organization needed additional mental health support, compared with 20% before the pandemic, Executive Director Guadalupe Ortiz said.
Meanwhile, 38% of children coming in had experienced two or more “adverse childhood experiences,” Ortiz said. This compares with the national average of 14%, and can include things like experiencing violence, abuse or neglect, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We were living in a world where we weren’t able to socialize as much as before,” Ortiz said. “It was that reteaching of socializing with your peers. ... We’re screening high for anxiety and depression.”
The staff they currently have is mostly for intervention, such as helping youth with socializing or trouble at home, Ortiz said. With the grant, the center will be able to hire its first clinical social worker to add a new facet onto the type of intervention support it can provide.
“We believe there’s a lot of stigma when it comes to mental health,” Ortiz said. “We want to reduce that with our social worker.”
At Community Coordinated Child Care, also called 4-C, funding will go to helping parents stay in the workforce, United Way’s Maravich said.
Families are eligible for free child care if they meet a certain income level. However, if a parent were to go over that, even by a little, they lose that ability, which can in turn make it hard for them to advance.
The new grant will increase that threshold, Maravich said.
“It doesn’t make sense to keep this job if I’ll pay more in child care than I’m making,” Maravich said.