With schools closed, CIS forced to pivot in time of transition

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SILER CITY — April was supposed to be the hand-off month at Communities In Schools of Chatham County, with long-time Executive Director Kim Caraganis’ retirement and the transition of leadership at CIS — a non-profit which serves and empowers local at-risk students — to staff veteran Tych Cowdin, who becomes the new person in charge after working as the director of CIS’ school-based programs.

But instead of a hand-off, it’s hands-off.

The coronavirus pandemic has provided plenty of disruptions, but few in Chatham County have been so significantly affected as students. Chatham and the rest of North Carolina closed its public schools on March 16, throwing life into a bit of chaos for the 12 full- and part-time Communities In Schools staff who worked out of offices on North Chatham Avenue in Siler City. Those offices closed to visitors that day. Staff members began developing work plans that involved serving remotely, and key CIS programs such as Teen Court, Community Service & Restitution, group activities and home visits were, for now at least, suspended.

The rest of the work went on, however, meaning pivot time and a shifting focus for Caraganis and Cowdin and the rest of the team.

Priority No. 1: assisting Chatham County Schools in addressing the issue of food insecurity among the student population it serves, which consists of about 275 students from elementary schools across the county, primarily in western Chatham.

After that: getting creative by finding ways to continue the kinds of services CIS provides, and has been providing, for three decades — among them, providing a network of support and resources for students; relationships with caring adults; and a safe place to learn and grow, all geared toward giving youngsters a healthy start toward a healthy future.

“That’s kind of the overarching goal of our work — to be a liaison between the needs of the kids in the community and the schools and connect them with the resources in the community,” said Cowdin, who joined CIS in 2014 and officially took the reins of CIS on April 1. “And so a lot of it lately has been working on communication between the school system and our staff, and then relaying that information from staff to the kids and the families.”

Making connection

These days, with schools closed and a “stay at home” order in place, that starts with staff members regularly checking in on and communicating with students. They do so using a texting application that can translate English into Spanish and vice versa, as well as doing needs assessments and connecting families and students with resources to help them succeed in school and in life.

The work takes different forms for different students. Staff members have daily conversations with some students and more formal weekly check-ins with others. From the communication, staff members run through a checklist of a dozen possible needs that a student or a student’s family may have. Some students have mentors (such as CIS’ “lunch buddy” program partnerships, when school is in session); others have pen pals within the community. Through the communication and assessments, CIS determines how best to support students — even reaching out to Social Services if the need arises.

It all fits within CIS’ mission, which is to surround students with a network of support, empowering them to stay in school and achieve in life.

“We’re trying to get creative in finding ways they (staff members and volunteers) can stay in connection without being face to face,” Cowdin said.

A backdrop to the work is what was supposed to be a smooth transition at the top of CIS’ organizational chart. Cowdin was selected earlier this year by CIS’ board of directors as the successor to Caraganis, who in March began to hand over the mantle to him. Caraganis had been planning to retire officially on March 30, but the pandemic led to a decision for her to stay on in an official advisory capacity to Cowdin through the end of June, assisting him when needed.

Transitioning

When she does step away for good, it’ll mark the end of a 30-year career in the organization for Caraganis. She began working at CIS — then known as Chatham County Together! — in 1990. She became executive director in 1998 and led the organization’s move to become an affiliate of the nationwide Communities In Schools in 2014, the year Cowdin came aboard.

At CIS, Caraganis has been responsible for supervising the staff, overseeing an annual budget of more than $500,000, doing liaison work with CIS North Carolina and program partners on community collaborations dedicated to youth health and welfare, and directing the program’s fundraising. CIS reaches more than 1,500 students in Chatham County annually through mentoring, family advocacy, community service and restitution and school-based programs in collaboration with Chatham County Schools.

Caraganis’ reach and impact has been so instrumental that she was awarded the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, the state’s highest civilian honor, last fall. When she accepted the award at a CIS event at Fearrington in September, she shared credit for the honor with her staff.

“This group and the people I’ve worked with over the years are the ones who’ve make me look good,” she said that day.

Count Cowdin among them. The Kansas native has spent the last few years supporting the three CIS model schools and Youth FIRST programs after his initial work with the program as a student support specialist at Chatham Middle School. Cowdin, who previously spent two years as an Operations Assistant with the University of North Carolina football team after earning an MBA at Washburn University in his hometown of Topeka, also assists with social media communications, expansion support and community engagement.

It’s community engagement that makes CIS’ work so beneficial in Chatham, particularly at times like these. Cowdin says a key CIS objective is to deepen relationships between staff and students and “vulnerable community members” who may not trust or rely on information coming from the school system or official community channels. CIS’ new reality in the age of COVID-19 has shifted from being the resource provider to being the connector to the resources.

“We’re a communication tool between families and the systems providing resources,” Cowdin says.

As it has done with people in general, the pandemic has created extra stressors, fears and levels of uncertainty to the population CIS serves.

‘A lot of uncertainty’

“We don’t know the field of play,” Cowdin said. “We don’t know where the goalposts are now. So it’s hard to make a game plan if you don’t know where the boundaries are, what the rules are. We don’t know the rules of the game and there’s a lot of uncertainty.”

It’s during times of uncertainty that the “human connection” is so critical, Caraganis says.

“I feel like relationships have been primary to everything that this organization has done,” she said. “And that’s really what our services are built upon. And we won’t be able to fix all the things that are happening or maybe any of the things that are happening, but we will be able to be that human voice that says, ‘I hear you, I see you there, I care.’ I think that’s going to be incredibly powerful — at any time, but especially at a time where people are feeling isolated or scared.”

Cowdin said many of the families of students CIS works with are used to disruption, so therefore resiliency also develops. CIS staff works to leverage its relationships to help equip students and families with tools that provide constructive, positive solutions — in school and in life.

“And in focusing on those strengths and opportunities, identifying those weaknesses and those threats,” he says, “there will organically be this new way of doing things. It’s almost like a new awakening, you know, because people are going to operate differently.”

“We see a real creative process,” Caraganis adds.

“Yes, absolutely,” Cowdin responds. “But it’s founded in communication and relationships. And that’s what we’ve always been about. So I feel like we’re really well-equipped to meet that need because we have those established relationships and that trust in the community. And we can be the connector, you know, and the liaison between those systems and the actual families.”

Which is what Caraganis says has been the hallmark of Communities In Schools for three decades.

“Our history of being community-based — that’s really the roots of this organization,” she said. “And so, while we’ve been in the schools, we’ve also been in the community for 30 years. So it’s not uncomfortable for our staff to be reaching out to families, calling them at home. That’s just the way we’ve delivered services.”

And will continue to, Cowdin and Caraganis say, even in the face of a pandemic.

Publisher/Editor Bill Horner III can be reached at bhorner3@chathamnr.com.

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