When COVID-19 struck the state, Andrea Harbeck only had one choice with her interns.

“Get everyone online.”

While professors and students alike scrambled to move their classrooms online, Harbeck and her colleagues in the Fostering Healthy Futures program encountered a unique set of challenges. The FHF program serves kids ages 9-11 who have involvement with the child welfare system. The 30-week program was in its final two months, working the kids to deliver a curriculum that includes learning skills such as anger management and heathy communication through group work and, critically, through individual time with an FHF graduate student intern/mentor. For the graduate students, this internship provides a key piece of their professional preparation. For the participant children, these skills help them foster healthy personal development.

“When I heard we were going online I thought, ‘How is this going to work?’” said Kelly Nicks, a first-year graduate student in the Graduate School of Social Work and one of the FHF mentors.   “It went really smoothly. We had 100% attendance from the kids.”

For nine grad mentors and 17 kids, keeping the program going meant going online.

Once it was clear that the mentors would no longer be able to meet with their mentees face-to-face, the program quickly pivoted to an online format. Harbeck described how program staff worked with families to ensure that they had equipment in the home to run Zoom and changed their face-to-face mentoring to online delivery.

“It’s been interesting. It’s going better than expected. For the kids it’s been going much better than expected,” said Nicks.

As a grad mentor, Nicks described how she was surprised at the level of engagement of her mentees in the online format. Program mentors worked together finding activities and methods to engage with their kids online. For example, Nicks talked about joining her mentees in the online game Roblox and taking them to visit online escape rooms. For her, the surprise was how she was able to connect with the kids through these online activities.

“I feel like we are meeting them in their world.”

The sudden change in both the classroom experience and the internship required everyone to think differently and to come up to speed on what it meant to mentor in an online format. And while Nicks admits there are pros and cons to mentoring over Zoom, she is happy that she can continue to serve her program families and complete her internship.

FHF Pre-Teen Program Director Robyn Wertheimer agrees.

“There are so many silver linings,” she said.

Taking the traditional mentorship program and bringing it online helps everyone think differently and opens doors for the program to extend its reach beyond the Denver Metro boundaries.

“We have always wanted to connect with youth in rural communities.”

For the mentors, COVID has already changed the profession they are training to join. Suddenly, the future is today.

“Telehealth has been on the horizon but this really opens it up and shoots us forward.,” Nicks observed. “We are all having to lean in.”

More information on Fostering Healthy Futures.