'We literally had to create a virtual program out of necessity within 48 hours': How this youth outreach program had to promptly shift to online support groups to continue helping young Australians

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Since 1985, Youth Insearch has helped over 30,000 young people to rebuild their lives and currently assists around 1,000 young people per year across NSW, VIC & QLD.

Youth Insearch is an outreach program that helps young Aussies turn their disadvantages into advantages by providing them with support groups, weekend workshops, leadership training and simply put, somewhere to belong.

Stephen Lewin joined the program himself when he was having a rough time in his teens, eventually becoming a team leader — one of the roles that young people in Youth Insearch can work towards.

After a 19-year career in public service looking after people with disabilities, Lewin returned to Youth Insearch to join the staff as a General Manager and now, as of last November, the newly-appointed CEO.

“I came across to Youth Insearch five-and-a-half years ago as general manager – they were looking for an operations manager to turn it from a founder-run program that was fairly organic to put the structures in place to expand its reach,” Lewin said.

“So I’ve been setting up the organisation, plus the people systems as well – supervision and support, professional supervision for our program staff, performance management system and then a system to support all our leaders.”

The systems Lewin is referring to are the crux of the operation, ensuring all young people across Australia who need to dial in for support groups or workshops have the ability to do so.

“We had a little old server in the office that everyone used to remote into from other states,” he explains. “We got off that and used Office 365 Enterprise — that was the first thing — and redid the website, and then I was looking for a CRM and that’s when we went to Salesforce.”

Although Youth Insearch had begun expanding to different locations across three states, the spread of COVID meant that operations were ground to a halt and they had to begin transitioning to online sessions.

“I could just see that it was impossible to run our program in its current form COVID safe, so we ended up suspending all face-to-face workshops and support groups.

“But we had over 300 young people that needed support that had just been on our weekend [workshops] who had just started talking about their abuse and trauma, and it’s essential that they go to the follow-up support. It’s just the start, the weekend program, so support groups are critical,” Lewin continued.

“So, we literally had to create a virtual program out of necessity within 48 hours.”

This meant that Lewin and his team had to put protocols in place to ensure the participants were able to join the virtual sessions and do it safely, so Lewin created a list on Salesforce that allowed for him to communicate exactly what needed to be done and by who in order for a swift and effective transition.

Working with Salesforce allowed for Youth Insearch to create a Community Cloud, which schools and police can access to refer at-risk youth to the program, with their details automatically being sent to the relevant people at Youth Insearch.

It was also crucial in ensuring the team at Youth Insearch could adequately monitor the youth involved and ensure nobody was left behind.

“A lot of the young people, all of their services had shut down so they were in limbo-land,” Lewin said. “A lot of the young people were in homes that weren’t a great place to be, either, so you can imagine, domestic violence and drug and alcohol issues — all of those types of issues — were all exacerbated because of the pressures of COVID and then, some places that never experienced domestic violence started experiencing it because of the pressures of lockdown and people losing jobs.”

These newly-implemented virtual sessions also created issues around privacy, so Youth Insearch had to create policies to ensure the young people wouldn’t be put at further risk.

“We had to look at privacy issues because they had to be in a private location, so we created a privacy statement and some guidelines around that,” he explains. “At the start of the support group, a privacy statement is read out, which talks about needing to be in a private room, not having your siblings around you or other flatmates because this is private, and everyone agrees to that.

“We’ve got a massive list of ‘What Ifs’ — risk procedures for virtual groups — and one of them is that if it’s evident there are [other] people in the room, the facilitator needs to contact them and talk to them offline and potentially remove them from the group until they sort it out.”

Given that virtual sessions allow for the Youth Insearch team the rare opportunity to see the young people in their home, separate risk-prevention methods had to be put in place, too.

“If anybody witnesses any domestic violence or any neglect through the video screen — because that’s a thing we were never exposed to before, only by report, not by actually seeing some of the places these young people live in — they to be able to report that.”

After working out the kinks, Lewin explains that for anyone between the age of 14 and 21 who needs to reach out to Youth Insearch, doing so online can have its benefits for those who are reluctant.

“You don’t have that anxiety of showing up [to a face-to-face workshop]. We’ve had some young people that have registered for five Weekend Workshops, and have never turned up — they pull the pin every time because they have anxiety.

“It’s a bit more of a softer entry for those with social anxiety.”

If you think you or someone you know would benefit from Youth Insearch, you can check out their website which has everything you need to know about support groups, workshops and volunteering.

“For us, it’s about being what they need when they need it. So, really giving them a place that when they need it, they can reach out.”

If you’re currently needing to transition your team online, Salesforce’s new hub, work.com, has a full ‘How-To’ playbook on their site, as well as platforms to assist in the implementation of systems such as the one used by Youth Insearch.

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