When the coronavirus pandemic forced schools to close in early March last year, Natasha Eastland’s oldest children weren’t too bothered. A two-week vacation from school with no responsibilities? To the three teenagers, it sounded like a dream come true.

Their attitudes quickly changed.

Because Natasha and her husband Tony are essential workers who couldn’t work from home, the couple’s older children soon found themselves caring for the family’s two elementary-aged kids while also trying to balance their own remote education.

Jason, the youngest of the five, was in kindergarten and didn’t know how to read or use a computer. The older siblings helped the best they could, but even after the teens managed to get Jason logged in to his classes, he still had trouble navigating the computer. Jasmine, in second grade, also struggled to stay engaged. The family’s Wi-Fi network shuddered under the weight of five simultaneous users and dropped connections became a frequent headache.

A teacher sits on the floor with some young students

Cindy Olson uses a jar of glitter to demonstrate the importance of mindfulness to a group of children at the Mukilteo YMCA. (Photo by Michael Fox)

At work, Natasha and Tony fielded phone calls from the stressed household. When the parents returned home each day, they were confronted with the mess created by five children trying to cook and manage adult responsibilities on their own. Natasha remembers staying up late each night trying to help the kids catch up on their homework, often falling asleep mid-assignment. The whole family’s mental health suffered.

“We all were crumbling,” Natasha said.

The pandemic has been stressful for everyone. For families with school-aged children, the upheaval of the past year has been especially pronounced. The sudden change has led to a renewed sense of focus for organizations like the YMCA that focus on childcare. In the short term, that has meant addressing the needs of families by providing all-day childcare at a reduced cost for those who need it. More broadly, the pandemic has prompted YMCA to help address the long-term mental health needs of the children and, by extension, the community as a whole.

“This pandemic created an awareness of this trauma that was happening in our community,” said Peyton Tune, president and CEO of the YMCA of Snohomish County. “It created a need, a necessity, to take resources and push those resources in a very acute way towards these youth.”

A woman sits on a step with two young children

Natasha Eastland sits on her porch with Jason and Jasmine, her two youngest children. Daycare programs at the YMCA helped the kids keep up with classes during the pandemic. (Photo by Michael Fox)

Before the pandemic, the YMCA of Snohomish County offered after-school programs during the school year. But when schools began moving online, leaders at the organization realized that some families — especially those with parents working in healthcare or other essential jobs — were going to need more help. In just a few days, the organization pivoted and began offering all-day childcare. Grants from individual donors and foundations ensured that families who weren’t able to cover the full cost were provided with scholarships.

For Natasha, the first months of the pandemic were defined by sleepless nights and stressful days. At the time, Jason and Jasmine, her youngest children, were spending two days a week at the Snohomish YMCA daycare program. It helped take some of the pressure off Natasha’s oldest children, but it still wasn’t enough. On days the children weren’t at the YMCA, Natasha often had to leave work early to deal with problems at home.

The pressure came to a head several months into the pandemic when an exhausted Natasha was crying on her way to the Mukilteo YMCA. She bumped into Evie Longstreth, the senior program director at the branch. The two had met six years prior when Natasha’s older children first joined the YMCA. When Longstreth asked what was wrong, Natasha opened up about what was happening.

“I just poured my heart out to her,” Natasha said. “And she was like, ‘It’s okay Tasha. We got you here.’”

A child blows a pinwheel

Natasha Eastland’s son Jason blows a pinwheel during a mindfulness activity at the Mukilteo YMCA. The activity was designed to teach children the importance of long, deep breaths. (Photo by Michael Fox)

Through the YMCA’s scholarship program, the YMCA of Snohomish County was able to accommodate Jason and Jasmine full time at no extra cost to Natasha’s family.

“We kind of had to put our hands on their shoulders in a metaphorical way and say, ‘We got you. We’re not going anywhere and neither are you,’” Longstreth said.

Throughout that spring, the YMCA of Snohomish County focused on getting kids used to laptops and access to online learning to make sure they didn’t fall behind in school. They were able to help meet the community’s childcare needs. As the school year ended, though, staff became increasingly concerned about changes in the kid’s mental health.

The first signs came in changes to the children’s behavior. Longstreth said she noticed them getting frustrated more easily. The problem became even more apparent when formerly boisterous children grew quiet and withdrawn.

“There was a lot of trauma from even just the first two or three months of COVID-19,” Longstreth said.

The children were obviously upset, but many of them lacked the language necessary to express themselves, Longstreth said.

As spring came to an end, the staff began switching over to summer programming. Longstreth and the other staff members knew that more work needed to be done for the sake of the kid’s mental health.

With funding assistance from Premera Blue Cross, a longtime partner of the organization, the YMCA of Snohomish County was able to hire several behavioral and mental health specialists who could work with staff like Longstreth and help the children navigate the emotions of a challenging year.

“What’s really smart about an organization like Premera is that they understand that mental health doesn’t just happen in a doctor’s office. It doesn’t just happen with a trip to the pharmacy. it happens in everyday life,” said Tune, YMCA of Snohomish County president.

The support from Premera allowed the YMCA of Snohomish County to hire people like Cindy Olson, who now works at the Mukilteo YMCA as a mental health support person. Her role involves leading activities with groups of children and checking in with kids individually. If a child isn’t having a good day, Olson will work to help them better explain why they’re feeling upset and turn it around so the next day can be better.

On a sunny Tuesday in August, Olson led the children in a series of activities focused on mindfulness. For the first activity, kids were given a jar of glitter. When they shook the jar, the glitter dispersed — fogging up the jar in a cloudy mess. It’s designed to show what happens when we get upset, Olson said. When we set the jar down and wait a few minutes, the glitter clears and things calm down.

After the glitter exercise, Olson used pinwheels to help the children understand the value of long, deep breaths as opposed to short fast ones.

The mental health staff the YMCA of Snohomish County brought on in summer 2020 have continued their work in summer 2021. Tune said the $25,000 grant from Premera has been critical in helping the YMCA equip children to navigate their intense emotions around the pandemic.

When children are stressed and anxious, the parents often are as well. It can create a negative feedback loop that impacts the family unit as a whole, Longstreth said. Thankfully, the strategies taught by Olson and the other mental health support staff at the YMCA aren’t just for kids.

“It’s a reminder, when they bring stuff home from the Y, to just take a breath and relax,” Natasha said.

Ever since Jasmine and Jason started attending the YMCA regularly, the whole family’s mental health has improved. Jason grew more engaged in school and ended the year above average in all categories. Jasmine learned to deal with stress using calming music and yoga stretches she picked up at the YMCA. Both children started making more friends. Without the pressure of looking after Jason and Jasmine, Natasha’s older children were able to take a step back and be their own people.

For Natasha and her husband Tony, the children’s newfound mental health skills have had an even greater impact, one that they hope will continue long after the pandemic ends.

“It makes a bigger impact than what they know,” she said.