How Jamie Foster kept kids playing at the Boys & Girls Club through the pandemic.
When it was announced this May that Jamie Foster was going to succeed Phyllis McInerney as the executive director of the Nantucket Boys & Girls Club, Foster was facing a daunting set of circumstances. How do you run summer camp in the middle of a highly contagious pandemic? The longtime director of operations who first joined the Boys & Girls Club staff in 2006 as the athletic director, Foster led his team to reinventing their services to create a safe place for children to congregate. Now as the summer draws to a close and Foster prepares to formally assume his position as executive director, he shared the lessons he’s learned with N Magazine and how they might apply to caring for children in the uncertain months to come.
FOSTER: Getting ready for the summer with stringent COVID-19 regulations was very challenging. It took several months to dissect and implement state requirements that changed weekly. We were lucky to have the National Boys & Girls Club, ACA (American Camp Association), the local health department and a task force made up of trustees offering support along the way. Also, we had a weekly directors meeting with the local camps to share ideas, strategies and protocols, which was amazing. This island is special in that way.
N MAGAZINE: What lessons have you learned holding reimagined camps at the Boys & Girls Club that could be transferred into a school setting?
FOSTER: Our members are more resilient than we think. It amazed me how most adjusted to the new requirements we asked of them with ease. Masks were not as big of an issue as I had expected. Also, we offered virtual meetings with all campers and parents before they walked in the door to talk about all the new protocols. I think this really eased both the children’s and parents’ concerns on what a typical day would look like this summer. This year, summer camp was predominantly an outdoor camp. Members had to disconnect from all devices and were active outside all day. We had no cell phones, computers or gaming devices all summer and it was a non-issue. The schools could definitely use these club experiences when returning this fall.
FOSTER: Well that is the million-dollar question. Massachusetts in general has been leading the way on stringent protocols and flattening the curve. I would say even more so on Nantucket. I have been in regular communication with superintendent Dr. [Elizabeth] Hallett, and she has been working with several different committees to develop multiple options on how to open the schools this fall with safety as their number one priority. I have faith that they will make the right choice based on federal and local recommendations. So yes, I believe opening the schools is a good idea and our Club will be here to support the school system in any way possible.
N MAGAZINE: What do you think the developmental cost is of not opening schools?
FOSTER: Speaking as a father of a student who wasn’t in school during the spring, it definitely has had an impact on his learning. My son really loves interaction and thrives on the relationships between him, his peers and teachers. It was tough for him and many others to rely on virtual programming to receive the same amount of attention that he relies on in the school setting. I believe my son was not the only one having a hard time developmentally because he was not in the typical school setting. However, I must say that I think the teachers and technology department all did an amazing job providing the most comprehensive online experience they could with the sudden and unexpected closing in March. Looking forward, I am confident that no matter if we are doing a fully remote, hybrid or fully live model in the fall, the schools will be doing their best to meet the needs of all students.
FOSTER: Questions have been interesting from our members and my children. When will this end and go back to normal? When can I hang out with my friends? Will the Club be open this fall? Will we be able to play sports at the Club this fall?
N MAGAZINE: How would you advise parents discuss the pandemic with their children?
FOSTER: As a parent or caregiver, our responsibility is to be honest and give accurate information to help children minimize their anxiety or fear of COVID. Parents have to remain calm and reassure their children that they are safe. Be upfront with them, be available to listen and discuss their concerns. Most importantly, remind them how to protect themselves by washing their hands, wearing a mask and social distancing as much as possible.
N MAGAZINE: Based on the children you interact with at the Boys & Girls Club, what seems to be their level of understanding of the racial reckoning occurring in the country today?
FOSTER: I’ve always been amazed by this community and its ability to welcome all races and ethnicities. No community is perfect, and there is definitely work to be done, but if you walk into our Club on any given day, you will see something beautiful. You will see 350 children all playing together. We are lucky to have a program that includes a culturally and linguistically diverse group of children, as well as being inclusive of children with special needs. You will see these members reading books together, playing basketball, enjoying art activities or maybe taking drum lessons. Right now the country could really take a lesson from our members!
FOSTER: First and foremost, we need to begin by talking about it, not ignoring it. Racism isn’t something we should avoid because it’s uncomfortable to talk about. We should acknowledge what race and ethnicity are in this country and celebrate our differences. The old saying “teach them to not see color” is outdated. Almost 50 percent of our members are racially and ethnically diverse, and we are proud to teach our kids values and life skills like acceptance and cooperation on a daily basis. We must do better as a community to teach our children about racial inequalities in our country and challenge them to make a difference. At the end of the day, these kids will be the ones to change the world.
N MAGAZINE: Looking toward the fall and winter, how do you envision the services the Boys & Girls Club can provide?
FOSTER: The Club is here to support the Nantucket community in any way we can, while also making safety the number one priority for our members and staff. Unlike previous years, this school year the Club will not be a typical drop-in facility. We will continue to identify families most in need of our services and work with them to our fullest capability. In addition, the Club will be working with the public schools to develop a plan with hopes to support after-school activities. Lastly, as the Club boasts a 30,000-square-foot facility, we are considering teaming with the public school should they adopt a hybrid back-to-school model, in order to help working parents during the day.
FOSTER: My wife and I are both hard-working members of the community, and with two young boys, it was definitely a challenge. Like most families, we struggled to get work done, be parents, teachers and mentors to our boys while maintaining our mental and physical health. I think our family’s biggest takeaways were to have a schedule, share responsibilities and make sure the family does something physical every day such as taking a walk outside, kicking a soccer ball or taking a bike ride. Also, parents need to find time to take a break, recharge your batteries and be able to support each other.
N MAGAZINE: As with all nonprofits on the island, the Boys & Girls Club has had to reimagine its annual Summer Groove gala. Are you concerned that the Club won’t receive the level of funding that it usually relies on each year?
FOSTER: We know this year is a financial challenge for many of our supporters, and we are mindful of the limitations of the community as well. Our annual Tim Russert Summer Groove provides us with 40 percent of our yearly budget, and it is important for us to let our supporters know we receive no public funding. This year we have seen a decrease in funding, as other nonprofits have, however we remain encouraged that our ability to fulfill our mission to the community will inspire our supporters to continue in their generosity.
FOSTER: As I look out my office window, I see our members on the field playing, laughing, dancing and enjoying the summer. Not a care in the world, just having fun. It makes me smile to think of all the wonderful memories I have of summertime and savoring every minute of a carefree summer. As a child the summer feels like an eternity because nothing is rushed. Too often, as adults, we do not take the time to step back, look at what we have, where we live and just be thankful for it all. Sometimes, we just need to take a break from the everyday worries, live in the moment and remember just how lucky we are to call Nantucket our home.