Youth center offers consistent safe space for kids during pandemic

The Salamanca Youth Center has been opened since June amid the coronavirus pandemic as a consistent safe space for kids in the community.

SALAMANCA — With all the unexpected changes during 2020, kids need all the consistency they can get, and that’s just what the Salamanca Youth Center is trying to provide.

After being closed for about three months in the spring, the city’s youth center has been open its regular hours since June, offering activities, resources and a support system many children have needed during this uncertain time.

When the county hit Phase 4 under Governor Andrew Cuomo’s reopening plan last summer, Youth Bureau Director Sandi Brundage said they were able to reopen and spent as much time outside as possible.

“We’ve had a fair number of kids who are here,” she said. “It’s important that we are a presence in the community. We need to provide essential services for kids and families who are struggling.”

Under the current guidelines, Brundage said only up to 25 people are allowed inside the building at a time in order to properly social distance. She said although regular groups of kids come to the center often, they have not yet exceeded the maximum occupancy.

“We’re allowed to play some games in the gym, and we have to wipe things down,” she explained. “We have to clean every day before and after the kids are here. We have to wipe down pool sticks, tables, chairs, anything that the kids touch.”

In addition to all of the cleaning, Brundage said the staff has to do a daily health screening and everyone has to wear masks at all times. The kids have to wash their hands when they arrive and there is plenty of hand sanitizer available.

“We have to help them maintain socially distanced space between them,” she added. “The tables and chairs are spaced out. It’s basic common sense.”

Brundage said it can be challenging making sure they are on top of all the state requirements and not becoming lax in making sure the kids are following the rules and staying safe. She said the frustrations are understandable, but now is not the time to be lowering standards.

“The constant cleaning is also a challenge,” she continued. “It’s not like we have extra staff. It’s the same staff only now we have to do the intense cleaning of our building and everything inside.”

A majority of activities are done in the gym since the space is so much bigger and a lot of the kids need the place to burn up energy and blow off steam, Brundage said. But other kids just need a place to vent about their frustrations, she said, because they’re isolated as well.

“They just want to talk about their experience, and I know that children’s mental health is a big issue during this pandemic,” she explained. “Having a safe space for them to come to and talk about their feelings is important.”

Although some usual programs like the summer playground program had to be canceled, Brundage said the youth bureau continues to offer engaging recreational activities and providing for kids in need with food and other essentials.

Even with the weather change, the youth center plans to continue to operate as normal, unless further restrictions are invoked due to too many cases, Brundage said. She said the staff will keep steady with usual plans while beefing up on safety and cleaning procedures.

“The kids have been great, I’ve got to give that to them,” she added. “They know when they come in the first thing they do is wash their hands, the second thing they do is the usual sign in and then we talk about what does everybody want to do, what games do we want to play today or really just listen to what’s going on with them.”

Tutoring opportunities for students have also continued weekly as a partnership with the school district, Brundage said, and they are partnering with the Pay-it-Forward volunteer group to make sure struggling families can still have a Christmas.

“As always, this community has done a tremendous job of trying to support all of its members,” she said. “It’s important for our kids and important for this community to keep the doors open and the lights on for as long as we can during this time.”

The Salamanca Youth Center is located at 36 South Ave., behind Cattaraugus Community Action headquarters on Jefferson Street. Hours of operation are 2:30 to 8:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. For more information, call 945-1311.

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