Since March, Darrin Korte has been doing a lot of troubleshooting. Making sure his laptop connects to the correct internet, ensuring kids enrolled in Cambridge Community Center (CCC) digital programing sign into Zoom with their cameras on when scheduled, figuring out how to manage a food distribution program that has exploded in size. And those challenges are the straightforward tasks.
Korte and his team are also helping the families who call CCC a second home manage through the COVID-19 pandemic. He recalls a specific example that exemplifies the types of challenges local families are confronting.
“We were pretty firm with the kids. It was at 10 o'clock, you’re here and your lights and camera are on and you’re ready,” said Korte. “There was one student who was always distracted and turning her camera off – it turned out in addition to everything else, she was also raising her seven-year-old brother because her parent was working full time.”
Korte notes that CCC’s programs are developed to focus on families that often can be left out of other programs because of cost or other barriers, or who may fall through the cracks for other reasons. While CCC doesn’t exclude anyone, its focus is on the people who need help the most, something Korte says hasn’t wavered through the center’s 91-year history.
The CCC was founded in 1929 by a group of black pastors in response to the local YMCA being available to white men only. Their goal was to create a space where everyone was welcome, and where people could come together and build community. Korte says that guiding principle - building community together - has guided the center through the past six to seven months.
"On April 7th we launched our food and supply pantry as a response to COVID-19. We happen to have a big gym with a side loading dock and a sidewalk that wraps around our building – about four days a week we bring in 10 to 12 volunteers who load up food and supplies for [our community] to come pick up,” he said. He notes that the socially distanced volunteers have been serving up to 700 families each week through the program.
To be able to continue operations in a meaningful way, CCC relied on partnerships with other nonprofits and community organizations.
“Before I was even able to check in [people from] Harvard called to tell us grants they had committed to were still coming and they had some more [unrestricted] funds for us [to continue] our work,” said Korte. “95% of the food we get for our pantry comes from Food for Free and Lovin’ Spoonfuls – all I had to do was call them up and say how much food can we get; the partnership has been huge.”
His team adapted as well, taking on new responsibilities to make sure families continued to be served.
“We’ve got a great team that has stepped up in a big way – the person who’s coordinating our pantry is our lead teacher for our high school program, our enrollment coordinator is running our virtual classroom, our program directors have become caseworkers calling families when we learn about new resources that may help them,” he said. “I’m really [proud] and it’s been galvanizing for our team to see the impact they have and how important they are.”
They have also adapted their youth programs to take place virtually. From classroom settings for kids to log on and talk to other members of the CCC community and programmatic staff, to providing recording equipment for the teens in the Hip Hop Transformation program - efforts that all presented challenges that his team and program participants met.
“The challenge became an opportunity,” said Korte. “Really, this is how artists do it now. You record your verse, send it over to someone else to record theirs, so they were able to have a more realistic experience.”
Over the summer, CCC welcome some kids back into the building as it began providing care for some families with parents who are essential workers and had to return to work.
While the roles have shifted and his team has taken on new responsibilities to meet the moment, Korte is proud of the work that has taken place and knows there is still more to be done. The nature of CCC is it is a place where those involved become like family, and that history lives through the mission of the organization – to take care of your neighbors who need the help and lift the entire community.