EPIC Service Warriors is the only community service and education program for youth with disabilities between the ages of 16-23 in New England. EPIC Founder and Executive Director Jeff Lafata-Hernandez had to make some changes in order to continue to work with youth from the greater Boston and Worcester areas during the pandemic. We caught up with him to find out more about the 2021 Service Warriors:
How did the Service Warrior calendar change during the pandemic?
We had to postpone the graduation of the 2020 Service Warrior cohorts in both Boston and Worcester, who successfully completed the program in the summer of 2020. We then worked to redesign the Service Warrior curriculum to a virtual format for the 2021 cohort, who started their service year in November, eight months later than usual. We allowed more time for the onboarding and orientation process for the 2021 Service Warriors and their families, in order to ensure everyone understood how the program was going to work and how it may change over the course of the year.
What other changes has the program made?
This year, we have a smaller number of Service Warriors in order to ensure that we are able to meet the needs of all Warriors in a virtual setting: ten in Boston and eleven in Worcester. The goals, curriculum, and program remain the same despite changes to the calendar. However, we have had to change how we are providing these services in order to work in a virtual format. Our leadership workshops on topics such as Disability History, Financial Literacy, and Employment Readiness, were able to be easily adapted to a virtual format while still keeping things interactive. We hope to be able to move into a hybrid model when it becomes safe to do so.
What has been most challenging part of the year so far?
Moving our service learning projects to a virtual format has been difficult. One of the strongest components of the Service Warrior program has been immersing youth leaders into the different communities of Boston and Worcester. They typically get to work side by side with other organizations and community members to serve through projects such as cleaning parks, painting schools, and feeding the homeless. Since we are unable to do these projects currently, we have Warriors working together on Zoom to complete projects for their community until we are able to meet safely in person. EPIC staff members continue to make contactless deliveries of all service supplies to Warriors.
We have had to change some of our signature service days this year to ensure the safety of the Warriors and community, while still making a difference to the people we are serving. We could not complete our annual Holiday Toy Drive, a tradition that brings together EPIC Alumni with current Service Warriors to wrap presents after collecting gifts from the community. However, it was still important to the Warriors to do a project that would spread holiday cheer in 2020, so Warriors worked together to make over 100 holiday cards and letters that were sent to nursing homes throughout Boston and Worcester.
How will EPIC hold its annual City Serve events this year?
Instead of bringing together hundreds of volunteers to a single location for a transformative day of service, Warriors will instead be leading a smaller service day that will happen in the summer. Each Warrior will lead 10-20 volunteers on a project that they will plan and design from start to finish. This will not only give Warriors the opportunity to lead volunteers in service, but will also help them learn how to assess community needs, recruit volunteers, budget, work together as a team, and build other valuable skills that will help them in their future endeavors.
How has virtual programming made the Service Warrior program stronger?
The greatest thing that has come from virtual programming is the opportunity to bring the young leaders in Boston and Worcester together. Prior to virtual programming, these two teams of young people only spent one day together throughout their service year. Now, almost every Service Warrior day has both cities online together. In addition to Service Warrior programming, EPIC’s virtual youth groups are bringing together Warriors and Alumni from all over the state. This has been a great opportunity to watch these like-minded young leaders learn about other cities, build friendships, and create a stronger statewide network of young leaders with disabilities.
What have you learned as the founder and leader of the EPIC program during the pandemic?
COVID-19 has only increased the need for programs like this for youth with disabilities. People with disabilities already faced social isolation, high unemployment rates, and unequal educational opportunities, and the pandemic has amplified those disparities.
Every year, we see one thing that doesn’t change for the youth selected to be Warriors: their passion to serve and make a difference. When we had to postpone the start of the 2021 program year, the Warriors understood why and asked, “But what are we going to do to help our communities now?” Their call to action and service did not waiver. They knew their communities needed them now more than ever, and they were right.