This school year represents new beginnings for Jacob Bowers.

Bowers, 14, started his freshman year at a college prep charter school not far from his home on Chicago’s West Side. After being accepted earlier this year, he found out he was the only person from his middle school going there.

“I thought, this is my clean slate,” said Bowers, who enjoys playing basketball, making beats with his DJ equipment, and envisions becoming a lawyer one day.

“All the mistakes I made in middle school and elementary school, no one’s going to know about it,” he continued.  “I just get to go fresh.”

But this fresh start looks different than Bowers or anyone could have imagined. With the COVID-19 pandemic closing schools across the city, children with parents still working outside of the home needed somewhere to go during the day and complete their online coursework. The Barreto Union League Boys and Girls Club, a longtime haven for kids like Bowers in the Humboldt Park neighborhood, has become one of those remote learning hubs, offering makeshift classrooms to 90 students ranging from first grade to high school seniors.

Bowers, whose parents both work, now attends school virtually from the Barreto Club. He’s been coming to “the club” since he was six years old. The facility – tucked away on a residential street near the West Division/North California intersection – is just a short walk from the home he shares with his parents, older sister and three younger brothers, two of whom are newborn twins.

“It’s more productive than sitting at home,” he said about doing his online classes at the Barreto Club. “We’re safe here, too. We get to have fun. Even though we have to social distance, I still get to be around people.”

Meals help you ‘work better, move better’

In addition to a safe, socially distanced space, these students also receive nutritious meals throughout the day to nourish their bodies and minds.

A child at the Barreto Club poses for a photo while eating his lunch

The 90 kids who come to the Barreto Club during the school day, ranging in age from first grade to high school seniors, have access to free breakfast, lunch and snacks.

In partnership with the Food Depository, 19 community youth organizations like the Barreto Club have adjusted their services to offer students meals throughout the school day. As of mid-October, more than 18,000 meals were served across these sites.

Director of club services Jeremy Murphy estimated that about 80% of families they serve struggle with consistently putting enough food on the table. Pre-COVID, he knew those kids would get at least two full meals a day – one at school and one at the club in the evening.

Now that Barreto staff watch the kids during the school day as well, they are also providing breakfasts, lunches and mid-day snacks.

“To be able to provide meals to these kids three times a day, it means the world to me that this organization can still provide one of the things that’s already been needed,” he said.

Jeremy Murphy poses for a photo outside of the Barreto Club in Humboldt Park

Jeremy Murphy, the Barreto Club’s director of Club Services

In some ways, Bowers said he feels fortunate – there are other kids that rely on the meals more than his family does. But the food does still help keep him going throughout the day, he said.

“I know personally when you eat your three meals throughout the day, it helps you work better, move better, operate better,” Bowers said. “Keeps you more awake and focused.”

‘Stepping into the gap’

A student at the South Side YMCA eats his lunch, provided in partnership with the Food Depository.

A student at the South Side YMCA eats his lunch, provided in partnership with the Food Depository.

Several miles south in the Woodlawn neighborhood, third grader Gabriella Jeffries does her e-learning at the South Side YMCA. Her favorite subject is science, and when she’s not in school she enjoys playing outside. When it’s warm enough, she likes to go swimming.

Gabriella, 7, receives a lunch from the YMCA, another Food Depository partner. Her favorite offering, she said, was the one she received on a recent October afternoon. Cheese and crackers, green apples, tomatoes, and a carton of milk.

Gabriella Jeffires, 7, eats her lunch at the South Side YMCA

Gabriella Jeffires, 7, eats her lunch at the South Side YMCA

Eating a good lunch helps her concentrate during the day, she said, “because when I’m in school my belly’s full, so I don’t have to get up and get something else to eat.”

Nowadays, the South Side YMCA is hosting 20 students, ages 5-12, during school hours. The breakfasts, lunches and snacks not only help students’ focus, but also improves behavior, according to youth director Kim Polk.

Nearly half of the families enrolled in the school-day program are newcomers to the YMCA, she said, and need the service because of the parents’ work schedules.

“We hear from the parents that they’re grateful,” she said. “It’s good on our end, too, to still be able to work and be able to provide services. It’s like a routine.”

A student at the South Side YMCA receives a lunch on a recent October afternoon.

A student at the South Side YMCA receives a lunch on a recent October afternoon.

Murphy echoed that sentiment. He feels that same gratitude from the community he serves. As someone who grew up going to the Barreto Club himself, he knows firsthand how the space can act as safe haven, both physically and emotionally. And in tough times like these, that is more needed than ever.

“We are literally stepping into the gap, fighting the good fight,” he said. “We are definitely providing a service of not only education but providing the service of hope. Survival. It means so much.”

Learn more about our COVID-19 response or where to find food