It was January 21, 2021. In Houston, the pre-game energy was simultaneously familiar and strange. As Juma Youth began checking-in for their first in-person shift since the beginning of the pandemic, Ashlee, Juma Houston’s Social Enterprise Manager, felt nervous but also excited to see each familiar face. “It was kind of a rush. I took a lot of enjoyment and fulfillment in being able to give these youth, many of whom have been in the program for a year without ever working in the stadium, this opportunity to work shifts. They were really thankful and so was I,” Ashlee recalls.
Before the game, Ashlee used her pre-shift warmup talk to remind the youth of all of the new safety measures in place: always fill in the health form linked to a QR code at the entrance to the stadium as soon as you walk in, keep your mask on above your nose, make sure to follow the restrictions on how many people can be in a given area like the elevators and behind stands, etc. She also took the opportunity to ensure the youth understood that no matter what, she had their backs—if they felt uncomfortable or sick, there would not be a penalty for calling off. Safety was and is the Juma team’s first priority.
But she also made sure to acknowledge how grateful she was to have them back in the stadium. “Being able to have those normal interactions again that we took for granted was a big highlight; seeing the camaraderie of the youth and watching them step up even after having been out of cashier roles, some for as long as eighteen months, was really inspiring,” Ashlee explains.
With the number of fans capped at 25% of the venue’s normal capacity, the Houston Rockets vs Phoenix Suns game was unusually quiet, but also brought back a sense of normalcy, and more importantly, a chance for Juma youth to safely resume their on-the-job learning. “It was amazing to be able to complement Juma programming outside of the job with the learning that comes from working in the enterprise since Juma is meant to deliver that holistic experience,” explains Ashlee.
Even in these unique circumstances, Juma youth stepped up. In their first shifts back on the job, two Houston Juma youth were already able to take on leadership roles and have been Ashlee’s go-to leaders in the concession stands ever since.
Unfortunately, more challenges were on the horizon for Houston; within weeks of reopening, catastrophic weather would impact millions of people in Texas. Power outages left youth in difficult straights. Several games, and in turn in-person shifts, had to be canceled. But through it all, Ashlee found inspiration in the near familial bonds forged among the youth. Group chats lit up with messages of support and encouragement between Juma youth, many of whom had never met in person.
Despite the hardships, Ashlee is grateful for the bonds they have formed together and the lessons Juma youth are taking away from these experiences. “We’re having to be cognizant of things we’ve never had to think about before; taking greater caution and more care for our health and the health of others. But we’re also growing together,” says Ashlee.
In the months ahead, more challenges might arise, but with teamwork, positive attitudes, and indomitable spirits, the Houston team will surely overcome them.