Creating Space and Connection for Youth During the Pandemic

With the spread of COVID-19, youth programming across the country has adapted to new ways of engaging children and teens both online and in person. During this time, YouthSERVE has remained dedicated to connecting youth, ages 11-17, with rewarding volunteer projects across Santa Cruz County.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, our participants are completing at home service projects to uplift the high-risk groups who feel isolated in this current situation. Our volunteers are creating virtual and physical greeting cards, making DIY t-shirt dog toys, and virtually assisting seniors with technology.

One of our major feats amidst the COVID-19 pandemic was adapting our YouthSERVE Summer Institute Program (YSI). Our goal was to not only keep our volunteers safe but to also assist those in our community who needed it the most.

We had 15 youth volunteers participate in our summer program this July, in which they:

• Put together photo collages of Santa Cruz landscapes for Elderday seniors, to uplift those who have limited access to being outside at this time
• Painted signs to beautify and add clarity to the Homeless Garden Project farm
• Made gift idea “stars” for display at local businesses to support the Adopt-A-Family holiday gift-giving project
• Created original fairytale videos for kids in K-2nd grade who were past Reading Buddy participants
• Wrote letters to thank and encourage organizations working for social justice locally and nation-wide

Most of this summer program was virtual with teens meeting via Zoom to take part in the service projects. Although summer break is usually a time for rest, our volunteers were eager to join our Zoom calls and learn about each community need we presented to them.

In addition to the virtual activities, we offered two in-person volunteer opportunities where we painted signs for the Homeless Garden Project and harvested lavender on their farm. In order to participate in the in-person service projects, our volunteers had to be pre-screened beforehand and were asked to follow proper physical distancing protocol during the activities. Our in-person volunteers participated outdoors with plenty of space for social distancing and were required to wear masks at all times.

Despite the many precautions and strict parameters, the handful of volunteers that participated were eager to have this face to face interactions with their peers. They were so thankful to have a safe space to meet each other and collaborate together. Many of our volunteers were also excited and grateful to have something to look forward to this summer and to lift the spirits of others. Our youth took away new skills and felt more comfortable speaking in a group setting. It was truly inspiring to see how they worked together even in a virtual setting.

One YSI participant expressed, “I am looking forward to giving back to my community because I appreciate it tremendously.”

The YouthSERVE Summer Institute has been running for more than 20 years, and now more than ever, we felt the critical need to provide local youth with this opportunity. While this year looked very different than previous years due to strict social distancing and safety protocols, the core of our program remained the same. In this program, and with all of our programs moving forward, We are determined to provide local youth with meaningful ways to serve their community and prevent feelings of isolation in these strange times.

As the necessity for volunteers continues to rise for food distributions, shelters, and other essential services, teens are not always able to contribute due to safety or liability reasons. Yet, our teen volunteers yearn for a way to be involved in making a difference during this time of increased need.

We are so grateful for our YouthSERVE Summer Institute volunteers and hope that they will inspire other teens to donate their time to better our community. With schools continuing remote learning this fall, we plan to mobilize teen volunteers as tutors to assist younger students to cope with the new normal. We hope to find ways to not only keep our YouthSERVE volunteers engaged but to also assist those who are most vulnerable.

We will continue to offer our virtual and at home service projects this fall. If you’re interested in volunteering with YouthSERVE, please contact us at You can additionally sign up for one of our at-home projects on our website.

We hope to provide this free program for many years to come, please show your support by donating to YouthSERVE here.


Blog Post written by the YouthSERVE Coordinator Malia Yamashita. As a Santa Cruz native, she is determined to make a difference in her community by connecting local youth to meaningful volunteer opportunities. When Malia is not mobilizing volunteers, she enjoys sea glass hunting and spending time with her dachshund, Petunia. 
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