As a youth peer support organization, engaging young people is always our top priority. We know youth love technology so we are always trying new things to see what works. We’ve brought fighting robots to our drop centers, built an app to gamify engagement and participation, and started live streaming on Twitch to reach underserved youth online. So, when the COVID-19 pandemic struck and stay-at-home orders forced us to close our in-person services, we knew we could lean into one of our strengths—connecting with youth through technology. Today we want to share a couple of the digital programs we’re offering during this time. Our youth need us, and they are especially vulnerable right now. Many are disconnected from their community, some of them live in homes that aren’t safe, and most are anxious about an uncertain future. The need is great, and with necessity being the mother of invention, we need to discover creative ways to connect with youth. So, let’s meet youth where they so often are: online.
Now, you may not have heard about it, but Twitch is the top platform for live streaming videos. With over 15 million daily users, much of the content is devoted to video games. And where there are video games, there are youth. Many youth love the community aspect of Twitch, where they can connect with the streamer and other youth in the audience.
The challenge lies in that while there are many young people for them to connect with, few are trained in peer support to help their friends through difficult moments. This is where we found our role. We’ve been on Twitch since mid-2019, steadily growing our community of youth, but we’ve really kicked it into high gear after the shutdowns occurred. We went from streaming a few times a week to streaming twice a day, Monday through Friday from 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.
When a youth logs in to watch, they may see a child psychiatrist answering questions from the audience while playing games like Fornite or Animal Crossing, two youth peer support specialists battling it out on Mario Party, or the whole audience playing Jackbox games together. There are always at least two youth peer support specialists, one who streams and the other who moderates the chat. This way we can engage all youth who join in and respond quickly to youth in crisis.
Our efforts on Twitch, in particular, have resulted in tremendous outcomes already. For example, one youth who joined our live-stream shared that they were feeling suicidal and needed immediate support. Because we had a staff member dedicated to moderating the chat, they were able to quickly see their message and respond. The peer moderator directly messaged the youth and after talking with them, they were able to stabilize them. That youth continues to join our live-streams regularly and is building connections with our peer staff and other youth in the chat community. Twitch has been a supportive community for them.
Twitch has provided our youth with an online community that they can join, share some laughs, connect with their peers and make new friends. And during these times where we are isolated from our communities, the support and connection that Twitch offers can be incredibly healing and alleviate a lot of pain that youth are going through. Through Twitch, we can remind youth that we are here for them even though we can’t be with them in-person.
If you know anything about Youth Era, it’s probably that we put a lot of thought and effort into our drop-in centers. We design spaces that youth are naturally drawn to and want to hang out in. Our drops are bright, colorful, and stocked full of the latest tech and yummy snacks. They are open Monday through Friday 3:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. and on the average day, youth can join in an arts and crafts project, play a round of pool with their friends, grab a quesadilla, connect with their youth peer support specialist in a one-on-one, or join in a support group for youth in recovery. So, when COVID-19 hit and we had to close our drops, we re-emerged on Discord, a platform where youth can join our safe and supportive community right from their phone or computer every weekday from 3:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. We’ve managed to maintain the same schedule with these virtual drops as our in-person drops to minimize the number of changes in young people’s lives and provide some consistency.
Like our physical drops, youth can chat with their friends and connect with our youth peer support specialists. Because our drops are located across Oregon, they are able to make new friends and connect with the larger Youth Era community. And with so many youth coming together, there’s a channel and chat room for every interest. Youth can participate in video game challenges, take cooking classes, try mindfulness exercises, connect with the LGBTQ+ community, drop a picture of their pet, join in a D & D campaign and more. If youth need individual support, it’s easy for peer support specialists to support them through a private message or move to IM. We are able to check-in, keep each other company and support youth through the harder challenges despite not being in the same physical drop.
Moving to virtual programs isn’t easy. It takes a lot of thought, time, trial and error before things start running smoothly. Expect bumps along the way, but also expect that once you get a virtual program up and running, not only will your youth or clients be excited, you may find that you want to keep those programs going even once you can reopen again. To learn more about our virtual services during this time visit our website. We hope that we’ve given you an idea of what’s possible and a glimpse of the community that digital programs can provide. Now’s the time to get creative—our youth need us!