Every morning, Lisa McClendon-Brailsford tries to preserve some sense of normalcy.
After the girls file into her makeshift classroom at Girls Inc. of Pinellas, their temperatures taken first, she starts with meditation.
Only a few weeks ago, the nonprofit was going about its usual mission, with after-school programs aimed at empowering girls to overcome gender and economic barriers. That changed when the coronavirus crisis came to Florida.
Now the organization is offering girls a place to focus and get help with online learning, which became the norm after Florida schools closed last month. The students can stay all day while their parents work in essential jobs.
And as a bonus, the Girls Inc. staff works to ease young minds about the pandemic.
McClendon-Brailsford was an education specialist at a different nonprofit before she was recently laid off due to the virus. She reached out to Darla Otey, executive director of Girls Inc., and heard back within a week.
Girls Inc. received a $20,000 grant from United Way Suncoast to extend its services and offer girls a place to complete their school work with adult supervision. The group has waived fees for the families they are able to serve.
“Most of the girls who are with us are elementary or middle school,” Otey said. “Their only other option would be to remain home alone.”
Michael Yowell, who works at a psychiatric hospital, said his 12-year-old daughter enjoys going to Girls Inc.
“Obviously we don’t want our daughter home alone," he said. "There could be predators in the neighborhood.”
Regina Sims, who has custody of her 6-year-old granddaughter, works for Pinellas County government.
“It’s a blessing to have them open right now,” she said. “I didn’t know what I was going to do. I don’t know what a lot of people are doing right now.”
Her granddaughter, she said, deals with separation anxiety and Girls Inc. has been a source of stability. The girl looks forward to going there every day with her packet of work from kindergarten, she said.
Sherry LaDuca, who also has custody of her granddaughter and works for Instacart, said she’s grateful for a place that can provide the child peace of mind when everything around her is changing. The girl is in kindergarten.
“The children know what’s going on,” LaDuca said. “She gets it. She knows it’s not going to be forever. Right now we just have to do what we have to do in order to stay safe.”
The nonprofit is adhering as closely as possible to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Otey said.
More than 30 girls are currently attending the Pinellas Park-based organization, which serves girls across the county. Girls Inc. is still taking in new clients.
Each student and employee has their temperature taken before being allowed to enter. Only nine people are allowed per classroom and those students are clustered together during the day, not allowed to move between classrooms as they once did.
They sit at opposite sides of a table as they tackle work from their respective schools. Bathroom breaks are only one at a time.
“Girls are touchy feely and want to be around each other,” McClendon-Brailsford said. “You have to constantly remind them ‘no touching.’”
At times, she said, it’s been a challenge.
“One girl had a tough moment,” she said. “She was having an emotional moment, processing a lot with the coronavirus. It was so heart-wrenching to not be able to hug her. For me it hurts. I (usually) hug my students, pat them on the shoulder.”
Still, she said. It’s important for them to have a space to process their emotions.
McClendon-Brailsfords starts the 10-minute meditations at 9 a.m. each day. Some days she plays a guided meditation for kids through an app, while other days she plays music, asking them to visualize a waterfall, imagining what their skin feels like under the sun and what the birds nearby sound like.
Each day she has a theme: one day this week was “control” and another was “relaxation." The girls loved it after the first time, she said, though she had to remind them meditation did not mean falling asleep.
After that, McClendon-Brailsford likes to leave some time she likes to call “girl talk” before the students get on with their school work. They talk about the news and the things they’re hearing and feeling.
“It’s very important for them to have some type of normal atmosphere,” McClendon-Brailsford said. “I think it’s very important for their mental health. These kids are watching social media. It’s important to give them space to have a one-one-one to talk and process. It’s just really important to allow kids to talk right now.”