We talked to Regina Snowden of PYD about helping young people with disabilities to live with dignity and pride.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Regina Snowden: Personally, I am doing well, for which I am grateful. I take the recommended precautions. A change in my schedule has been to help my grandchild with a virtual school.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded PYD.
Regina Snowden: I founded Partners for Youth with Disabilities over 35 years ago and has served as its Executive Director since 1985. I have three decades of experience creating and implementing innovative programs designed to empowers youth with disabilities to reach their full potential s as well as guiding other organizations in becoming more inclusive.
How does PYD innovate?
Regina Snowden: Over the past thirty-five years, Partners for Youth with Disabilities (“PYD”) has created transformative experiences for thousands of youth, enabling lifetime independence and instilling confidence in their ability to succeed in their personal and professional lives. PYD’s mission is to create a world where young people with disabilities live with dignity and pride and lead self-determined lives filled with purpose. PYD partners with youth to build critical life, social, and career readiness skills and partner with organizations to increase workplaces and communities’ inclusivity. PYD has been an important and enduring force in the lives of so many youths.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Regina Snowden: It has been a very trying time, especially for non-profits, many of who have suffered so much in bringing the needed support for our constituents. COVID-19 fundamentally challenged every aspect of PYD’s model, and we mightily rose to the challenge. We adapted, innovated, and we’re thriving. We’re actually offering more programming through virtual environments, which is critical to combatting our youth’s increased isolation. Isolation poses a great danger to our youth, given the high-risk nature of many health conditions and disabilities, and it means less interaction, leading to potential mental health issues and stagnation in skills development.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Regina Snowden: During the first half of 2020, the world experienced an unprecedented crisis that impacted how we live, work, and interact. Many non-profits suffered financially and programmatically during this time. However, PYD was able to adapt, innovate, and thrive due to our previous investments in technology, experience with remote work, and our commitment to providing employees with increased emotional and tangible supports. Our finances have not significantly suffered during this time, and our programs are actually offering more through our virtual environments. This has been a time of great learning, and we seek to reflect on this learning to leverage it in our decision making going forward.
COVID-19 and the risk of illness impacted everyone in significant ways. For many young people with disabilities, COVID-19 posed an even greater risk due to the high-risk nature of many health conditions and disabilities. Because of this, many people with disabilities and their families need to eliminate risk, which means less interaction with others, even as the rest of society begins to open. This poses many challenges, including increased mental health issues and stagnation in terms of skills development.
This means that PYD’s programs may be one of the few social channels for many in our community. Our programming options are even more important than when our community has multiple ways to interact, learn, and develop. We know that our population will continue to be isolated for an extended period, likely until a vaccine is found. We will need to continue to offer virtual options for our community far beyond the time when other organizations are reverting to face-to-face offerings. We will need to be creative in our communication with families and innovative in our programmatic offerings.
PYD was able to easily transition to a fully remote workforce in early March and have remained so today. This smooth transition was due to our earlier investment in technology, development of remote work policies, the adaption of various online communication methods for internal and external needs, and commitment to providing our employees with emotional and tangible supports. What has become clear is PYD’s ability to remain successful within this remote environment. It is especially interesting to note that in some ways, morale and functionality are increased with everyone being remote (versus our prior mode of operating where about one-fourth of the staff was remote and the remainder were office-based).
We know that learning from this experience will ensure that PYD remains successful in an increasingly unpredictable environment. By documenting our learnings and considering how they impact our decisions, we will ensure that we are nimble, reflective, and innovative despite any challenges that we face.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety? How do you project yourself and PYD in the future?
Regina Snowden: PYD has been a visionary organization. Several current trends– specifically the intensified focus on mentoring and youth career readiness – have caught up with what we’ve been providing for decades. We are building on our current successes, embracing these trends with PYD’s expertise being “at the ready.” With the ever-increasing demand for our services, support tools, and expertise, we recognize we need to continue to develop and grow as an organization. We want to seize this opportunity to increase our capacity to respond to demand and secure and build the quantity of programming we can offer, and achieve higher levels of outcomes.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Regina Snowden: Our plans for PYD’s future include focusing on the transformation of PYD from being largely focused on immediate service delivery and national replication to investing for significant quality growth overall. By expanding our leadership capacity, we will be building additional partnerships in new markets and establishing relationships with new funders and political and community leaders for the future stability and growth of PYD.
Your final thoughts?
Regina Snowden: PYD’s population is vulnerable in other ways. A large percent of our youth and young adults are people of color and are at even greater risk with the rise of acts of overt racism, social unrest, and violence. Youth with disabilities face societal discrimination and environmental factors, placing them at extremely high risk of juvenile justice system involvement. This is especially true for youth with emotional disturbances and learning disabilities, who are at an increased risk of gang involvement, placement in secure care, and placement in correctional facilities. It is critical to recognize that disability is an important part of considering the whole child. We believe and have long advocated that to adequately support at-risk youth, disability has to be part of the conversation. We value any opportunity to bring our experience and knowledge to a national level in this important social issue.