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A Better Connection

A Better Connection

NBA and AT&T team up to help kids and families improve remote learning

It’s 6:30 p.m. on a school night and Jennie Brown is in her kitchen in Chatham on Chicago’s South Side. The sounds of clattering dishes and running water can be heard as she rinses asparagus and Brussels sprouts in the sink. Her 15-year-old son Jason sits at the dining room table, catching up on homework for virtual classes. Her other children – Arieal, 12, Gabrielle, 10, Noah, 5, and Aalyiah, 3 – flit in and out of the kitchen, peppering her with questions as she juggles the evening routine she inherited ever since the pandemic forced her to stop working and stay at home with her five kids.

“Sorry for all the noise,” she says. “I’m just trying to get dinner on the table.”

While chicken bakes in the oven, her apologies quickly turn to gratitude as she speaks loud and clear while expressing her appreciation.

“I honestly don’t think I can thank Mercy Home enough, because if it was not for them, I don’t know where I would be without some of the things that we have here at home,” she says. 

Jennie is referring to items she recently received from the NBA and AT&T, who provided much needed resources, supplies, and technology to help the young learners and families served by Mercy Home for Boys & Girls. 

In the fall, the NBA and AT&T donated funding for 75 Chromebook laptops and mobile hotspots with service on the AT&T network to ensure that kids could stay connected to their education while navigating the challenges of remote learning. In addition to the technology needed to connect, AT&T and the NBA donated $15,000 to fund other expenses for items like desks, printers, lamps, and more. AT&T and the NBA also donated more than 1,000 backpacksand 500 pouches of school supplies to Mercy Home’s kids and families. The distinctive, one-of-a-kind backpacks were upcycled from various in-arena and in-market signage and banners from the 2020 NBA All-Star weekend in Chicago.

The NBA also committed another $15,000 for educational programming and academic initiatives, including tutoring. 

The support arrived just in time for Jennie, who describes a chaotic scene during the first weeks of virtual learning, when all of her kids were crammed around one table.

“My kitchen is not that big, but we were making do with what we have,” she says. “But then it started to get too cluttered. Notebooks and balls of paper were everywhere – in the kitchen, on the floor. And then the dining room table, where everybody eats, also got cluttered. We were all over the place.”

Receiving the desks, chairs, and school supplies was a godsend that gave Jennie and her kids some well-needed breathing room.

“It just made everything so much easier and organized,” she says. “Everybody was able to focus a little bit more. I set up a school area in the basement and everybody had their own workspace.”

Jennie’s oldest son agrees. Prior to receiving his own desk, he found it hard to concentrate on remote learning.

“Usually, I’d sit in my room on my bed and do my school work,” says Jason, a sophomore at Urban Prep Academy in Bronzeville. “But now I sit at a proper desk, and it’s a lot more efficient. The desk helps me focus because I sit up, rather than lying down.”

And when Gabrielle’s school-issued laptop started lagging behind, Jennie was very grateful for the new Chromebook she received, which solved the slow operating problems. But lack of internet service – one of the biggest hurdles of remote learning – continued to be an obstacle for her five kids who all competed for bandwidth.

“Our internet goes out and it comes back on all the time. We’re always dropping the signal and everybody is using the internet at the same time,” says Jennie. “Every month, we always go over for what I pay for and I guess with the overage, comes the slowing down of the service.”

Thankfully, AT&T’s donation of hotspots helped boost coverage within the household. 

“Those hotspots have been a huge help,” says Jennie. “If our personal Wi-Fi goes down, I just have the kids connect to those hotspots. The tutoring service has been great for my two girls and helped them boost their grades.”

These items remain a blessing and make it possible for her to organize the virtual school day, while also caring for her youngest, a toddler. Generosity like this allows Jennieschildren to succeed, along with many other kids and families connected to Mercy Home.

These donations demonstrate a shared commitment between the NBA and AT&T to not only support the local Chicago community, but also provide relief and e-learning assistance to kids and families during the COVID-19 crisis.

Friends First is one of the best things that could’ve happened to me and my family.

AT&T’s response to the pandemic is rooted in keeping communities across the country connected, and that includes supporting families and educators facing a complicated school year of social distancing, modified classrooms, and virtual learning. At the beginning of the pandemic last year, AT&T created the Distance Learning and Family Connections Fund, a $10 million initiative to give parents, students, and teachers the tools they need for at-home learning. 

“To succeed today, students need connections to digital learning environments,” says AT&T Illinois President Eileen Mitchell. “We’re so happy to support the Mercy Home youth by providing the connection these students need to succeed this school year.”

These days, there’s a tone of measured relief in Jennie’s voice, but in the early days of the pandemic, life was a little more frayed and frantic. In mid-March of 2020, Jennie – a home healthcare worker – was excited when she found a higher-paying job in her field. Her new gig felt charmed, as her birthday fell on the day she was supposed to start. But a few days prior, she got some bad news.

“The company called me and said they were closing their doors because of the pandemic,” Jennie says. “So I couldn’t take the job.”

Crestfallen and unable to get rehired at her old job, Jennie went five long months without working. In July, her previous employer found her a job, but when that client got exposed to the virus a couple months later, Jennie decided to step away and commit herself to the wellbeing of her children at the beginning of the school year. That disappointment, on top of her fears about the virus, only exacerbated existing mental health issues.

“I suffer from severe anxiety,” Jennie says. “I was afraid to go out of the house or touch things. I didn’t want the kids to go outside, at first. It took a huge chunk out of me and I had to adjust like crazy. Going to the grocery store was a challenge. I was under a lot of stress and very emotional. Being in a house with five kids all day, everyday is a struggle.”

But Jennie knew that she didn’t have to face her struggles alone. When she felt overwhelmed, she called Mercy Home because of her longtime connection with our Friends First Mentoring Program, which matches children, one-on-one, with well-trained mentors. These trusted relationships help kids explore their sense of discovery on fun-filled outings as they develop a better vision of their future beyond the limited horizons that hold back far too many children. All three of Jennie’s eldest children have participated in the program.

I want to always have that connection with Mercy Home. I consider them my family because they’ve helped me in ways that family should.

“Friends First is one of the best things that could’ve happened to me and my family,” says Jennie. “It’s given my kids an outlet. It’s given them a chance to discuss their feelings with somebody other than me. It’s given them the chance and opportunity to meet new people, do new things, and try new things. The program has given them an overall better sense of who they are.” 

Jennie reached out to Friends First seven years ago, in hopes that her oldest son could connect with a mentor.

“Jason’s dad was not active in his life at all. He would speak to him, but then he would go on these long breaks where he wouldn’t communicate with us for months on end,” Jennie says. “And I just felt like Jason needed a consistent, positive male figure in his life. That’s what led me to Mercy Home and the Friends First program.”

Jason’s mentor Dan Winters turned out to be a match made in heaven – someone who inspired Jason to get out there and do what’s right. To this day, even though Jason graduated out of the Friends Fist program, he and Dan still stay in touch over the phone. In fact, as Jason looks back on his time with his mentor, the life lessons he learned with Friends First are still with him.

“Mercy Home, Friends First, and Dan helped me become a better person in general,” he says. “They helped me become a more engaged person by encouraging me to try new things. For example, I learned how to cook. I learned how to make bruschetta.” 

Jason calls his mother a “kind, hardworking and a very loving mother” who loves him no matter what and makes sure him and his siblings stay on the right path. Still, Jason is very aware of the challenges his mother faces. But he’s in awe of how his mother meets those challenges head-on.

“She plays both the roles of my mother and father, considering that I don’t really see my dad,” he says. “It means a lot to me, because I know it’s really difficult because my father hasn’t been around to take care of me.”

Jennie says she considers Mercy Home and Friends First “family” for the unconditional love, mentorship, and support we provided over the years. She’s especially grateful for the support she’s received throughout the pandemic after Father Scott Donahue created a mobile task force that allowed Mercy Home to expand therapeutic and tangible support to our kids and their families, including those connected to Friends First.

Jennie looks forward to the day she can return to work. But in the meantime, as she does what’s best for her family, she relies on public assistance and help from Mercy Home.

“When I don’t have enough, Mercy Home has supplied us with Whole Food gift cards, which has definitely come in handy,” she says. “I stocked up on household toiletries at the beginning of the pandemic. But when we ran out, Mercy Home gave us a gift card to Target and I would go buy essentials, like laundry detergent, tissue, and disinfectant. That’s been a huge help.”

Mercy Home also helped Jennie and her children have joyful holiday season. That time of year is often tough on the kids and families we serve, as it can bring up painful family memories on top of added financial stress. But with our help, the holidays were merry and bright for Jennie and her kids.

“I was so grateful for the box of food we received for Thanksgiving,” says Jennie. “It came in handy because it included food that I didn’t have, or I ran out of, or couldn’t find. That was a big help. Thanks to Mercy Home, we had turkey and a ham.”

During Christmastime, our mentees – including Arieal and Gabrielle – enjoyed celebrating with their mentors at our annual Friends First Christmas party. The festivities, of course, were virtual, but the holiday spirit was as strong as ever, as mentors and mentees dressed in Christmas outfits, sipped hot chocolate, and ate cookies while playing holiday bingo and trivia. Santa’s helpers at Friends First even delivered presents and party supplies to mentees prior to the celebration.

But no matter the season, Jennie keeps coming back to one word when she talks about her gratitude for Mercy Home: family. It’s a word she uses quite often, whether she’s talking about programs like Friends First or our work with the NBA and AT&T. This kindred spirit of community and compassion, Jennie says, is not only a bond she can depend on throughout the year, it’s a bond she wants to hold on to, forever.

“I want to always have that connection with Mercy Home,” she says. “I consider them my family because they’ve helped me in ways that family should. Even though I have family who don’t help as much as they should, that’s okay. Mercy Home has truly stepped in and been that family for us to lean on.”

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