Budgeting for Disaster Allowed AHA! To Continue Mission

By Mitchell Kriegman   |   April 2, 2020
The group's Zoom-enhanced social solidarity program in practice
Teens helping teens during a crisis

AHA! equips teenagers, educators, and parents with social and emotional intelligence to dismantle apathy, prevent despair, and interrupt hate-based behavior. The organization prides itself on a program based on mindfulness, awareness, connection, empathy, and resilience.

Resilience certainly is something we all need and can use in this time of crisis. The teenage years for many kids feels like a crisis, so paradoxically the youngest of us are no strangers to the feelings of worry, helplessness, and fear washing over all of us. Jennifer Freed, PhD. and Rendy Freedman, MFT, co-founded the non-profit in 1999 in response to the Columbine High School massacre that shook the world of security, safety, and school life. AHA! stands for Attitude Harmony and Achievement. Together with a group of friends, they ran a summer program for local teens to develop relational skills through group process and the creative arts. That program has evolved into a powerhouse organization that has trained over 2,000 educators, taught over 25,000 students, and supported over 2,500 parents in their daily lives. There’s no question AHA! is rising to address kids and families’ concerns in this ever-evolving moment when resilience is what we’re all looking for.

Q. Can you explain how AHA! is addressing the ongoing coronavirus pandemic here in Santa Barbara?

A. We really rallied in the face of the coronavirus and the request for everybody to shelter in place. Mental health is going to be the biggest struggle in our community right now, aside from physical distancing. We’ve renamed it physical distancing instead of social distancing because the last thing we need now is to be emotionally distant. People need connection more than ever. So we’re just operating with physical distancing rules but maintaining the closeness.

How big is your group?

There’s Rendy Freedman who cofounded our organization and me and 25 staff members. Unlike many nonprofits that we’ve heard of who have laid people off, we’re keeping everyone employed. Every single person is going to be paid what we promised them, at least through the summer.

That’s impressive.

We planned for a disaster. That’s the kind of planning we’ve done for 20 years. We’ve been here a long time and we budgeted for disaster. The last thing that people need when they are social service providers already on shoestring salaries is to be laid off. And many, many of our colleagues in the social service sector have been given two weeks’ notice. So now we are keeping everybody employed and they are working harder than ever because they are helping through Zoom. We’ve got therapists on staff who were already seeing some of the teens and they’re continuing to see them on Zoom. We have people every single day responding to emails and phone calls, because if ever there was a time for social and emotional intelligence, it’s now. Again, the last thing we need is for people to feel socially isolated and alone emotionally. We need to all do things calmly instead of out of fear. We’re actually increasing our services versus decreasing them.

AHA’s Dr. Jennifer Freed

So, what’s in the AHA! program now during this crisis?

We operationalized all our afterschool groups on Zoom and we created the opportunity for junior high teens and high school teens that need support to contact us through our website to form new drop-in Zoom support groups. In addition, on our Instagram account, which is @aha_sb, we are posting three to five educational and inspirational videos every day for parents, educators, teens, and children so that people can stay very connected to one another but also get little mini lessons throughout the day and reminders on self-care. We are still serving Carpinteria afterschool and also some of the junior high peacebuilder clubs by Zoom.

How’s the staff holding up?

When something like this happens, everybody goes to their reptilian brain more often than their logic brain. We have to keep calming ourselves using every tool we’ve ever learned and stay centered and grateful instead of fearful and resentful. We’re holding two support groups for our staff weekly because they’re on the front lines. We’re supporting them while they support the community. And that’s going very well.

AHA! is constantly dealing with families and community; do you have a message beyond teens to all of us?

I think the most important message I have for the community is how important it is to support the supporters. It’s really important that we have community support. The last thing that we need right now is people self-isolating while also thinking that they are the only ones feeling as bad as they feel and as scared as they feel and as sad as they feel. We’re all in this together.

We might all be reverting to our teenage selves at this moment.

Exactly, yes! Many of us are doing some very low level coping behaviors like binge watching TV, eating too much, not exercising. I think what AHA! is doing is asking everybody to be healthier than they’ve ever been psychologically and physically to see us all through this.

Teens have a unique relationship to technology that others don’t have. Is that helping them right now?

Yes, it certainly helps them in these Zoom groups. They’re pros. I think where it doesn’t help them is in their sedentary behavior. What absolutely everyone has to do is get out and do a lot of physical exercise in nature. Physical distancing, but to go outside so that they are not just machine-bound their whole day.

Are you still seeing social shaming and all of that negative behavior that happens during normal times?

It’s actually gone way, way down. I think having a real emergency makes us reprioritize. Hate is a luxury we don’t have right now. People are all in survival mode. Other than the hoarding behavior and the selfish behavior that happens around the grocery store, I’ve seen a real reduction on hating in my feed. Also. I’ve been on a number of Zoom calls in the background with the teens and I’ve never seen such vulnerable sweetness in my life. The teens are reaching out to each other. They’re saying really beautiful things to one another. There’s a tenderness that’s really emerging.

Are there lessons for adults from the teens and how they’re behaving that they could learn from?

Yes, definitely. That’s where I would say go to our Instagram account, @aha_sb. You’ll get the culture of AHA!, because all of our staff are making videos. I think adults should go there, too. They’ll see and feel what our culture really is and what the teens have been exposed to.

That’s the part that is very difficult to think about. There are many twenty-year-olds, thirty-year-olds who just can’t possibly sustain life in this kind of economy.

You know, we spent how many billions and trillions bailing out the banks, it’s time to bail out the American people and that’s the investment that we need to make right now. We need to rebuild this generation with a commitment to serve everybody. We have to take the same kind of courage and boldness to bail out people on the brink of bankruptcy that we do with corporations. Since corporations are individuals and individuals are individuals now we need to say to all of these people that have lost their work: You will be personally bailed out for the next three months as long as this lasts, and then you can be on a repayment plan that’s quite generous like the banks get.

Do you ever wonder about the world we’ve given our kids? We had time to grow. Now kids seem to live faster compressed lives with less understanding and less room. Whenever I hear anybody bashing kids, it’s like, what are you talking about?

Absolutely. I think one of the things that’s incumbent on us to do now as adults is model how one gets through this. As one of our teens said on Zoom, “I can’t believe we’re making history right now.” They haven’t lived through the Spanish Flu or the Great Depression or Nazi Germany. They’re aware now that this is their big World War Two moment. It’s a war with a virus and an economy that’s collapsing, and they know the gravity of this. Many of our teens that we serve come from service-class families and many of them are just terrified because their parents have all lost their jobs and they have no idea how they’re going to be able to survive this.


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