When Covid-19 Hit Neb. Immigrants, a Nonprofit’s New Hire Found New Ways to Connect Them With Help
In the spring of 2020, Covid-19 was tearing through several small Midwest cities, thanks in part to the disease’s spread at industrial, poultry, and meatpacking plants. In Nebraska, meatpacking workers accounted for one out of five of the state’s early cases.
Relief efforts hit snags early on. Most of these workers were immigrants from a kaleidoscope of nations — Cuba, Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Somalia, , Vietnam, and more — and many spoke little English and had few ties to their towns or the organizations providing help. The Latino community, for one, “is largely invisible in our region,” says Cari Cullen, director of the Midwest Early Recovery Fund for the
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Relief efforts hit snags early on. Many workers were immigrants from a kaleidoscope of nations — Cuba, Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Somalia, Vietnam, and more. They spoke little English and had few ties to their towns or the organizations providing help. The Latino community, for one, “is largely invisible in our region,” says Cari Cullen, director of the Midwest Early Recovery Fund for the Center for Disaster Philanthropy.
Enter Eric Garcia-Mendez, a native of the small city of Grand Island, home to the Nebraska State Fair as well as the 3,600-employee JBS USA meatpacking plant. With funding from the disaster philanthropy center, Garcia-Mendez joined the Heartland United Way in his hometown and set out to connect its large Latino and East African immigrant communities with Covid-19 information and resources, including financial and housing aid and vaccines.
Garcia-Mendez, who had been working for a state conservation nonprofit since his 2019 graduation from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, knew that traditional communications strategies wouldn’t work in the neighborhoods where he grew up. Text-heavy news releases and fliers confused and intimidated those who struggled with English. Many families didn’t have a television or reliable internet connection.
Immediately, Garcia-Mendez set up mask distributions on sidewalks outside of businesses frequented by immigrants. He also arranged the design of culturally appropriate posters that described social distancing and other health precautions to reduce the disease’s spread. Information relayed via social-media platforms was also posted on new electronic signboards installed at key locations, including a local pharmacy and cafeterias at the meatpacking plant. Messages were broadcast in English, Spanish, Arabic, and Somali.
When vaccines became available, Heartland distributed brochures printed in the four languages with information about the shots and registration. Garcia-Mendez also marshaled volunteers to canvass neighborhoods with door-hanger bags that included the vaccine information, financial-assistance materials, and hand sanitizer. Using census-tract information to pinpoint underserved areas, they reached some 4,500 homes.
For food distribution, Heartland recruited food pantries, the Salvation Army, and several local churches, particularly three in Latino communities that enjoy the trust of residents. More recently, Heartland has begun to distribute vaccine information, masks, hand sanitizer, and disinfectant spray through a local mosque and nearby Somali and South Sudanese businesses. “We’ve built this awesome network of trust and connection with them” that will pay off in future efforts, Garcia-Mendez says.
The Center for Disaster Philanthropy funded 13 positions like Heartland’s with groups in Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, and South Dakota. Many of these organizations are now looking for permanent funding. Ultimately, Garcia-Mendez says, the crisis posed by the pandemic provided opportunities to break old habits and find new ways to connect with those who most need help. Heartland hopes to launch soon a leadership training program that will empower immigrants by showing them how to navigate the city government, utilities, and nonprofit services and become community ambassadors for newcomers.
Other nonprofits have taken notice, Garcia-Mendez says. They’re out walking the street in hard-hit communities, making connections, just as he did on his first days on the job.