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The pandemic has upset the equilibrium of many nonprofits, forcing some to curtail services, cut employees’ pay and even resort to layoffs as they canceled in-person fundraisers.

But there’s a tiny organization in East Oakland that appears to be weathering the storm: Youth UpRising garnered enough funding in the previous fiscal year to avoid axing any of its staff, says chief executive officer Y’Anad Burrell.

Offering a variety of free social services for Alameda County’s teens and young adults at its 25,000-square-foot center on MacArthur Boulevard, Youth UpRising’s counselors managed to step up their caseloads to accommodate the steadily increasing number of clients suffering the emotional fallout from mandated social-distancing.

“Students were not dealing with the social distancing, the online learning, (and they were) unsure about the vaccine,” Burrell said. “There’s a lot of anxiety.”


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Youth UpRising also has increased its weekly distribution of groceries to anyone in need.

The nonprofit has been giving away the bounty it receives from Alameda County Food Bank for a handful of years, distributing bags of food and diapers each week to approximately 50 to 75 people.

Since the outbreak, however, those who line up on Thursdays seeking sustenance — nearly all of them women with infants and very young children in tow — number from about 100 to 125, Burrell said.

“People are out of work, and they have a need,” Burrell said. “With COVID, a lot of people lost their job.”

And Youth UpRising goes beyond providing basic mental health care and nutrition.

Serving Oakland teens and young adults ages 13 to 24, the organization is something of an arts and education hub as well. Kids don’t only come for the skateboard park and basketball courts but also for lessons in ballet, hip-hop and “turfing,” an improvisational dance style that originated on the streets of Oakland.

Those interested in making music can learn how to create an album in the recording studio at no cost; there’s also an art studio where young people draw and paint.

Marcus Churchwell and a local artist chat in Youth UpRising’s music studio. (Photo courtesy Y’Anad Burrell/Youth UpRising)

COVID-19 has affected how many can use these creative outlets, though.

Whereas groups of aspiring musicians used to assemble in the recording studio, now only two can meet there and only for an hour before the facility must be cleaned for the next arrivals. Burrell predicts the limited-use arrangement will continue for the next five to seven months.

As for art lessons, they’re held outdoors in a courtyard these days because the room previously used for painting and drawing is very small, Burrell said.

But one key aspect of Youth UpRising hasn’t changed during the pandemic.

Youth participate in an outdoor team activity at Youth UpRising. (Photo courtesy Y’Anad Burrell/Youth UpRising)

“Youth UpRising is a great safe haven for young people, especially in the inner city,” said Jesus Ibn El, a 34-year-old Oakland native and founder the acrobatics slam-dunk team, Showtime Dunk. El used to visit the center in his late teens to teach dance and compete with team members in turf dancing battles.

East Oakland is a tough place to grow up, he said, noting the area’s pervasive poverty, drugs, prostitution and gun violence.

But this nonprofit offers hope for a brighter future.

“It gives them … safety, the opportunity to experiment with the arts, to learn social skills,” El said. “It helps them with their schoolwork. It also helps them get jobs, create resumes. It’s a bunch of different things. (It’s) definitely empowering a lot of the youth.”

How you can help

Youth Uprising can accept food donations directly as long as they are non-perishable (beans, rice, canned goods, for example). Diapers are always welcome. Please call before dropping them off: (510) 777-9909. For more information, visit youthuprising.org.