LOWELL — Colorful walls filled with student artwork, foosball tables, basketball hoops and other games and resources in Lowell Community Health Center’s Teen BLOCK went untouched during the pandemic, leaving young people without their network of peers and adult leaders.
But earlier this month, the program opened its doors once again, much to students’ enthusiasm.
Teen BLOCK — which stands for Building Leadership Opportunities in the Community — an after-school youth development program for teenagers ages 13 to 18, is back after two years of virtual meetings, staff furloughs and Zoom fatigue.
Monday through Thursday, from 2 to 5 pm, teens build social and leadership skills through a range of different activities, completely free of charge.
Ruth Ogembo, director of community programs, said Teen BLOCK encourages Lowell youth to identify needs in their community and commit to addressing them in unique ways. It is also an intimate space where young people can find comfort and support, which they may not have at home.
Inviting teens back to the second floor of the health center is incredibly rewarding, Ogembo said.
“Having a space where youth voice, experience and leadership is valued is extremely important,” Ogembo said. “I can’t wait to see what this generation of youth are going to do, so I’m excited about that.”
Teens can choose to join a number of programs throughout the week, including a support group for LGBTQ youth, contemporary jazz and hip-hop dance class, the Teen Talk group to discuss personal issues and express themselves, team-building exercises and more. The health center also partners with schools to implement their Making Proud Choices curriculum, a comprehensive sexual health and education course.
But the pandemic complicated their programs, and Ogembo said that made participants feel more “isolated” than ever.
Ogembo said she has seen the effects the pandemic has had on students’ mental health, and that the pandemic caused a steep decline in attendance in Teen BLOCK programs. Before COVID, more than 100 teens regularly checked in, but when they switched to a virtual format, Ogembo said only five or six did so.
More than a third of high schoolers shared they “experienced poor mental health” as a result of the pandemic in 2021, according to an analysis from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The study also found that nearly 45% noted feeling sad or hopeless over the last year, and LGBTQ students and female students had poorer mental health than their peers.
Teen BLOCK serves as a “safety net” for young people to seek help from trusted adults and counselors and find ways to better their neighborhood, Ogembo said, and without it, “young people get left behind.”
“We always hear about how the pandemic has affected adults, businesses, jobs and all of these things, and in that conversation, you rarely hear of the impact the pandemic has had on youth and children,” Ogembo said. “Connecting to Teen BLOCK gave them the connection to the community where they felt proud of being part of Lowell. … So once they lost that, you go to school, you go home, you go to school, you go home. You lose that connection to community.”
Mason Mugambi, a 17-year-old student at Lowell High School and teen ambassador at Teen BLOCK, was born in the US but lived in Kenya for several years before moving to Massachusetts in 2018. He said the culture shock was “amazing,” and he was initially introverted and preferred spending time in his “comfort zone” before opening up in Teen BLOCK.
His doctor, who said he used to work at the Lowell Community Health Center, recommended he join the program in 2019, and he has loved it ever since. As a teen ambassador, Mugambi leads group introduction activities, where teens can rate their current mood and answer a question of the day.
Mugambi said his involvement in Teen BLOCK has inspired him to help in other ways, including joining the YMCA as a youth ambassador. He said he welcomes the return to in-person programs and enjoys the ability to engage directly with everyone face-to-face.
“I started getting involved in other communities, and it was kind of a place where I could just come there, chill with the staff members and just volunteer,” Mugambi said. “Being back in person is really good because virtual was not it. It was hard just staring at a screen, and it wasn’t the same as coming in, saying hi to the staff, goofing off.”
As Teen BLOCK’s attendance slowly grows, Youth Programs Manager Monica Veth said she is looking forward to providing young people with better access to mental health services and resources they would not otherwise get in a virtual setting. She added that the in-person experience, she hopes, is a welcoming space that allows teens to open up.
“I love the work that we do and the relationship that we build with our young people,” Veth said. “I grew up in Lowell, so to work in this field, I’m in some ways giving back to my community.”