LACONIA — For many of the 150 children who belong to the Boys and Girls Club of the Lakes Region, Monday now means baking with Mike, a familiar face who teaches a cooking class on Facebook. Kids tune in on their phones, iPads and laptops, while Mike Garrity, the club’s junior program director, dressed in a grey sweatsuit, speaks from the comfort and seclusion of his kitchen.

“This is cupcakes with Michael! Everyone should be washing your hands for 20 seconds…Washy, washy, happy, happy!”

Garrity, a kid-friendly mentor, leads his online audience through preheating the oven, opening the cupcake mix box, adding ingredients and blending.

“I have to apologize in advance. My little dog barks when the mixer’s going. Jake, no barking please.”

“This is a great activity to do with your family, especially if you’re getting bored at home,” Garrity says. His computer camera and microphone are conduits to an unknown number of youngsters – a tactic embraced three weeks ago when the clubhouse closed  because of the coronavirus. “We miss you all at the club. We can’t wait until everything gets back to normal and we get to see your lovely faces again.”

At a time when schoolchildren nationwide and in New Hampshire are sequestered at home, online lessons have become the norm. For local kids who rely on the Boys and Girls Club of the Lakes Region for a daily stabilizing presence, help with schoolwork and social problem-solving, the online outreach is a godsend.  It’s also a boon to struggling families. Parents learn ways to keep fidgety, pent-up children positively occupied.  The club’s daily activities and friendly greetings are reminders to youngsters that they are missed, and the club is still looking out for them, caring from a distance.

For businesses, schools and families across the country, teleconferencing is preserving human interaction when it’s sorely missed.

Next week Boys and Girls Club counselors will likely start meeting in pairs with children to offer homework support and generally check in through meetings over Zoom, an online platform originally developed for commerce that has become a synonym for social gathering, and a cure for cabin fever as sheltering at home grows older.

Alan Philcrantz, who lives in Massachusetts but frequently visits the Lakes Region, said he and his wife have dinner with their daughters and grandchildren every Saturday evening over Zoom. “Preparing the same meal and desserts as if we were in one home. It goes on for hours,” Philcrantz said. "The pets join in also and start barking."

Family recipes are shared, and Zoom family sit-downs have replaced takeout-on-the-fly. "Last week we broiled steaks together.  Some of us used the indoor grill. Some of us used the outdoor grill. Before this, the only way we saw our grandkids was at a hockey game," Philcrantz said.

Zoom has become a go-to virtual meeting site for socializing because it can host large gatherings while maintaining sound and picture quality, even though it's been occasionally hacked by "Zoombombers" who crash meetings uninvited. Zoom and other online venues such as Go-to-Meeting, Google Hangouts, Apple Face Time and its nearest Android-friendly equivalent, Skype, have continued to soar in use during the COVID pandemic, according to technology industry tracking. Customers who’ve grown comfortable with the platforms say they plan to use them after social distancing mandates retreat, as an antidote to loneliness and separation from loved ones that can provide a more palpable sense of connection than phone calls or email.

 “It’s nice when your family’s together. Seeing them makes a big difference,” said one 87-year-old Laconia native, who didn't want to be named because she worries about online predators. She uses Apple’s Face Time on her IPad to stay in contact with relatives nationwide. “It’s not that you can give them a hug or anything.  It makes you feel so close, just seeing them.  Hearing them say, ‘I love you, Great Nan. They do it all the time. It makes you feel like you’re still alive. It makes your heart feel full.” She has been Face Timing weekly with her with her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren for nearly five years.

Dr. Raymond Suarez, head of psychiatry at Lakes Region General Hospital, said he’s participated in family game nights over Zoom. Virtual group and one-to-one meetings, now the status quo for most medical and therapy appointments during the COVID-19 pandemic, can feel foreign and stilted at first when substituted for regular social interaction, but they provide the next-best alternative to being in visual and physical contact – a need hard-wired into human nature, and a key to personal fulfillment.

“My younger cousins don’t want to talk on the phone, they do Face Time,” Suarez said. “Face recognition is deeply ingrained in our brain,” which has an area dedicated to recognizing the eyes and mouth. “In face-to-face interaction we get that, and it makes sense to us.  We are beings that like to collect information,” including nuances in voice, body language and expression, which help us read how someone is feeling and reacting to us. “The more information we have, the more we’re happy,” Suarez said. “Just to be with somebody, to touch them and be next to them, is important to us.”

Experts predict teleconferencing’s proven flexibility and viability during extremely isolating times will make it an enduring and more widely-used way to stay in touch, as well as a more popular option for providing health care in rural areas where patients and providers are spread out. In New Hampshire, business experts expect it will revolutionize more workplaces as a time-saver, while providing more work-from-home opportunities to employees with children or long commutes.

At the Boys and Girls clubs, teleconferencing is a newfound way to continue to offer structure and support, and guidance and reassurance from adult role models.  About 60 percent of the 700 children who use the clubs that are part of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Central New Hampshire struggle with mental illness and behavior issues, including fallout from trauma, said CEO Chris Emond. Sustained communication is critical to their health and well-being, especially now that the clubs cannot be physically occupied, Emond said.

“It’s hard, we don’t know that the kids are being safe themselves, or are in safe environments,” said Laconia club manager Jim Holmes. “If we go a week without seeing our kids, it’s concerning to us.  Now we’ve gone almost a month. We’ve worked really hard on routine and consistency. If kids stay home for a while, it’s hard to get them back on track. One concern is, are they keeping their minds fresh and not sitting in front of TV, a phone or video game?”

The club's pre-recorded programs provide weekday lessons in baking and crafts, science and technology experiments done with simple ingredients or things around the house, and night-time story readings. “We keep them supervised and engaged in safe, mindful activities,” Holmes said.

Daily offerings have included readings of “The Cat in the Hat” and “Oh, The Places You’ll Go” by Dr. Suess, demos on how to make leaf people, toast pizza and eggs that bounce, and sports and Disney trivia contests. The children are encouraged to post comments online, including about how they’re feeling.

“They’ve said they’re bored, having a hard time with online learning, and really miss the club,” Holmes said. “Our only interaction right now is views on Facebook and families coming to collect dinner, and we can have a short conversation with some of the children then.” The club routinely serves free meals to 130 to 150 children. Dinner is currently available for pickup at the club's location on North Main Street for anyone in the community.

“Kids were truly disappointed when they found out that school wasn’t going to be in session for the rest of the year,” said Emond, the organization's chief administrator for central New Hampshire. “Even with my own kids, even though the kids have technology, people still need that people-to-people connection." Technology is a stop-gap, but not necessarily an end run, he said. "They’re missing their friends, even though they can see them on Face Time."

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