Pandemic All Star: Jarrell Watts, Elementary Program Director, Sara Holbrook Community Center | Education | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Pandemic All Star: Jarrell Watts, Elementary Program Director, Sara Holbrook Community Center

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Jarrell Watts, Elementary program director, Sara Holbrook Community Center, Burlington - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Jarrell Watts, Elementary program director, Sara Holbrook Community Center, Burlington

The ever-changing world of hybrid learning left some working parents searching for help. When in-person school was not an option, they needed a safe and nurturing place to send their kids. Since August, Jarrell Watts, elementary program director of Burlington's Sara Holbrook Community Center, has been providing that support.

In the fall of 2020, the North Avenue center served as a free, full-day remote learning hub — one of more than 80 sites in the state — where some 35 students in kindergarten through fifth grade could get academic support and take part in enrichment activities when they weren't in school. Watts supervised a staff of about 11, plus a handful of college interns, who brought their passions — from art to tinkering, gardening to Italian language — to create engaging programming for kids.

As schools shifted to more in-person learning, Sara Holbrook's offerings adapted to meet families' needs. In April, when Burlington's elementary schools began offering four and a half days of in-person instruction, the center offered afterschool care Monday through Friday.

Ashley Parker, whose kindergartner attended the Sara Holbrook remote learning hub, praised Watts' "go-with-the-flow" demeanor and his ability to make the elementary program a place where her daughter could "just be a kid" during a very tumultuous and uncertain year.

Watts arranged to open the center half an hour early so Parker could drop off her daughter and still get to work by 9 a.m. He also ran camps during February and April vacations, including a circus-themed one that featured an animal-balloon day.

"He was always there for us," Parker said. "We are so grateful to him."

On a recent Thursday morning, Watts — known to the kids as Mr. Jarrell — showed off the elementary school space: the indoor gym, a shelf displaying nature paintings made by members of the center's Bob Ross Club and a windowsill lined with plants sprouting in paper cups.

The big picture window above the sill boasts a killer view of Lake Champlain and the Adirondack Mountains. The scene is a far cry from the Las Vegas desert where Watts was born and raised. He grew up playing football "every day, all day," earned his associate's degree in exercise science, and then played semipro football for two years before tearing his Achilles tendon.

After that injury, "I had to find something else to strive for," he said.

Afterschool programs were instrumental in Watts' early life, providing a structured environment that helped him stay on the right path, he noted. A career in youth development seemed like a natural fit.

After working in programs in Utah and Nevada for a decade, Watts saw a job opening at Sara Holbrook and decided to take a chance, even though he'd never been to the East Coast.

"I am just someone that loves to have an experience," Watts said. "I had an opportunity, and I landed here in Vermont."

The pandemic experience made it a year like no other.

"The best thing we could do is try to be as compassionate and as understanding as possible," Watts said.

Since COVID-19 protocols prohibited parents from entering the building, Watts made sure they felt in the loop with frequent phone and email check-ins. He directed families in need to an on-site food pantry where they could get groceries.

Sara Holbrook's executive director, Christine Lloyd-Newbury, said Watts has been a great asset to the center.

"He's incredibly personable, and he has a really wonderful ability to build relationships with both kids and families, and colleagues, as well," she said.

This summer, Watts is looking forward to directing two programs for about 40 kids — a literacy-based one that will support English language learners, and another more traditional camp program based at Burlington's Sustainability Academy.

Students missed out on so many opportunities last year, Watts said, so this summer, "we're planning to have as much fun as possible."

Editor note: To choose Vermont's Pandemic All-Stars, we surveyed our readers on the people, places and programs that kept them going — and going — during the COVID-19 pandemic. Space limitations prevented us from recognizing every pick worthy of public praise.

The original print version of this article was headlined "There for the Kids"