A City Council committee recently opened discussions about the special challenges Evanston’s young people are dealing with because of the pandemic and the services available to help them meet those needs.

Introducing the issue at the  Dec. 7 Human Services Committee meeting, Alderman Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, said she has been concerned as others have been about the effect of the pandemic on community members in general. 

Ms. Fleming said a variety of factors have made it a difficult time for the City’s young people, in particular.

“They’ve been out of school since March,” she noted. “For public health reasons, we were not able to offer

many jobs this summer through the Summer Youth Employment program.”

On top of that, the City experienced a series of homicides earlier this year involving younger community members.“So I want us to have a conversation about youth services and what’s going on,” she said.

She said her hope is “we can have a discussion around what we know is going on [and] what we heard is going on, and then see if we can kind of wrap our minds around a plan as we’re moving forward to make sure our youth are supported.”

Some of the participants at the Committee’s initial discussion included Elijah Bull, a senior and prominent member of Evanston Township High School championship basketball team; ETHS Superintendent Eric Witherspoon and other ETHS administrators; Nathan Norman, the City’s Youth & Young Adult program supervisor; and Audrey Thompson, the City’s Community Services Manager.

The speakers highlighted different issues in their remarks to the Committee.

— Mr. Bull: “One main thing I think we need more of is community support for our youth. I know that on the Internet there can be some negative distractions, especially during this time where we’re not really able to do anything outside of our homes … [and] I think what we need is a lot more positive distractions.”

He suggested one opportunity might be to create more clubs or activities, taking into account the restrictions posed by the virus.

— A parent with a daughter at Park School and a son who recently graduated from ETHS spoke of the depression younger people face because of the change to their routines.

“Depression is hitting our children, and it’s hitting them a lot,” she told Committee members. “I’m even hearing that from my 9-year-old, just having conversations with her, especially with the E-learning, because they’re frustrated.

“Parents are frustrated. Teachers are frustrated, and it’s like a bad time for everyone, but in all this the students are really the innocent.”

About E-learning, she said, “I, for one, witnessed listening to my daughter and there was a parent that was yelling [during the remote learning session] the whole time. The child was in class, and the child just couldn’t focus when the teacher was talking to her, and mom or grandma began to yell at her.

— Dr. Witherspoon: “We’re seeing an increase in mental health issues for young people today. It is not unique to Evanston or ETHS. There’s a lot being written about it right now, across the nation, and I know from talking to colleagues that every school district is seeing it. 

“Being in a pandemic is not easy. We know it’s not easy for adults, and it’s certainly not easy for young people. … On the one hand, there’s a lot of resiliency there in youth. But on the other hand, they don’t have the life experiences to often times equip them for the kind of things that even adults are finding so difficult right now.

“One of the interesting things about schools is that schools were never built on a model to deal with mental health issues, and yet we have so many students and families with these needs.                                                

“And yet, the model that’s out there is really the mental health funding in this country goes to agencies. … It goes to cities and municipalities, to a certain degree, but it certainly goes to agencies. Schools get zero for mental health issues, even though I think the [model] needs to be changed.”

Dr. Witherspoon suggested that the schools and City could work together toward developing legislation that would bring about that change, perhaps becoming “a model for the nation on how we understand that schools can be a front-line delivery system of a lot of mental health services that we simply do not receive any resources for.”

— Taya Kinzie, Associate Principal for Student Services at ETHS: “When we think our big picture, one of the things that we continue to focus on is ‘How are we getting our staff to be connected to students, to have the first finger on the pulse of what’s needed?’

“We have very stereotypical versions of what depression is – that depression is only crying or ‘I can’t get out of bed,’ yet what we know [is] in teenagers that can come out as irritability and unpredictable behavior at times and agitation.

“And so we really want to make sure that we are continuing to fight the stereotype also of what mental health issues can look like so that we can really intervene.”

— Mr. Norman:  “One of the things that Audrey (Community Services Manager Audrey Thompson) has empowered me to do is to link across the board with other program coordinators to establish ways in which we can provide alternative recreation or enrichment opportunities and for young people. And for example I’ve linked up with Mr. Murray [Jivon Murray, Robert Crown’s program coordinator], and we’re in the process of implementing some podcast programs for young people.

“We also agreed in our outreach efforts that we have to have the youth involved we have to go and speak to them and talk about the things that they want to be involved in.

“We just can’t think that we know everything all by ourselves.”

— Ms. Thompson told the Committee the results of a survey her department conducted with the young people they work with.

“It was a very informal,” she said afterward.

 “We just wanted to catch a glimpse of what youth and their parents felt were beneficial and what services should be improved especially in this climate.”

The overarching theme revolved around jobs, Ms. Thompson told the Committee members. “They felt like the summer jobs are great, but how do we provide jobs throughout the year?” she said.

She said another expressed need was “recreation programs that are free to young people and they want a recreation center where they do not have to pay… [Many City recreation programs are fee-based]. They can come and frequent the building and its activities for free.”

Ald. Fleming said she hopes to continue the discussions in 2021, perhaps involving the City-School Liaison Committee, where representatives of those bodies talk about issues of common interest.

She said she would like to see officials take a more “all hands on  the deck” approach “to make sure our youth are supported, whether that’s through a job or mental health counseling. I know through the City with the pandemic, we’ve been trying to really kind of beef up our mental health support because we realized that people really that is a big hole here, and everywhere, particularly for families that don’t have insurance.”

She said exploring federal funding that is available could be another option.

The discussion at the Dec. 7 meeting may be viewed on the Human Services Committee information on the city site, cityofevanston.org.


Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.