Partners in Education virtual Job Readiness Training
As a result of the COVID-19 crisis, Partners in Education has expanded its virtual Job Readiness Training. An unintended benefit has been the elimination of geographical and space limitations. (Partners in Education screen capture)

Schools and offices throughout Santa Barbara County have begun to safely welcome students and employees back, but one thing is certain: in these uncertain times, “back” doesn’t look like it used to.

The same can be said for Partners in Education — and in this case, that is exciting news.

The nonprofit organization, uniquely positioned as an arm of the county Education Office, traditionally provides support to public school students in transitional kindergarten through 12th grade, arming them with tools they need to achieve success in school and beyond.

With the backing of the Santa Barbara community that goes back as far as 1977, Partners officially became a 501(c)(3) in 2001. Since then local businesses have embraced the opportunity to host high school interns, teach career-driven volunteer-led workshops, help struggling students through a free tutoring program, and provide tech gear and computers to students without them.

Pre-coronavirus, Partners had more than 10,000 community volunteers pass through its doors in the nearly 20 years of operation, reaching thousands of students at more than 50 school and after-school program sites.

And while Partners continues to support young adults as they strive to thrive, the organization has taken the trials of the contagion, its economic impact, and digital demands, and is now expanding its services to a broader audience.

With the shift to distance learning as a result of COVID-19, many in the community were disconnected because of their at-home technology. Families were suddenly expected to meet enhanced digital demands, forcing many to share a computer, a workspace and limited bandwidth, while seamlessly perform tech tasks they may have never done before.

Like several schools and offices, Partners in Education remained fully functioning in a mostly digital capacity — one that was reflected in the rapid growth of its tech-oriented services.

Drew Wakefield

Partners in Education traditionally hosts a December breakfast to recognize and thank its community volunteers, but the coronavirus disrupted those plans this year. Drew Wakefield, left, sales and marketing director at Ramada Santa Barbara, is one of the organization’s most enthusiastic volunteers. (Luis Medina / Santa Barbara County Education Office photo)

Responding to demand, Partners expanded its Computers for Families program services to the community at large, allowing anyone in need to pick up one of the donated computers or other tech devices, for use. Since March, 750 computers have been distributed, a number that is more than double last year’s total.

After picking up their device, recipients are able to apply for discounted internet and troubleshoot issues that have kept them from connecting before.

More than 60 percent of program recipients describe themselves as “unfamiliar with computers.” The majority of these recipients have school-age children, so Computers for Families implemented weekly virtual coaching sessions for parents, discussing issues like internet safety and online learning.

Partners further expanded its services through its Job Readiness Training for high school students, a component of its Paid Student Internship Program. Partners staff members were excited to find that the shift online has eliminated geographical and space limitations, allowing them to offer more spots to students and to open it up to the North County, something the organization has long aimed to do.

The seven-week job preparation program involves volunteer-led workshops that touch on résumé composition, job interviews, workplace communication and financial literacy. Currently, 65 students — half of whom hail from the North County — meet weekly in a virtual space, discussing topics in small groups led by volunteer career coaches.

Upon completion of the program, students earn a stipend and become eligible for a paid internship through Partners in Education’s business network.

Virtual volunteerism, it seems, is being embraced by local volunteers and longtime supporters.

“We really didn’t know what to expect when we first launched our virtual volunteer opportunities,” Partners executive director Chelsea Duffy told Noozhawk. “We have been thrilled to see how willing volunteers are to roll with the changes and help however they can right now.”

Among schools, volunteer tutors and guest speaker positions are in high demand. The Partners team is quickly filling these requests with interested volunteers.

“Nothing can replace in-person interactions, but teachers are making the most of the situation and finding ways to make meaningful connections for their students,” Duffy added.

Thinking beyond its typically hands-on programming, Partners has been working tirelessly at making a creative shift, refusing to let its services fall to the wayside and responding to the needs of the greater community.

If you are interested in working with Partners in Education as a volunteer tutor, a business hosting interns, to share your wisdom as a guest speaker, or to donate goods such as computers, tech gear or financial support, click here for more information. Click here to make an online donation.

Noozhawk contributing writer Mara Pyzel can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

Mara Pyzel, Noozhawk Contributing Writer

— Mara Pyzel is a Noozhawk contributing writer. She can be reached at