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How Lane County Latinos took care of their most vulnerable in COVID

By April 17, 2022COVID-19


Two years into the coronavirus pandemic, ways to support Lane County Latinos, mostly created by Latinos, are in place to address health and wellness disparities highlighted by the virus’ onslaught. Community leaders are proud of what’s been accomplished, and as the emergency winds down, they’re hoping for lasting change.

When the virus first hit, many correctly forecasted that communities of color would be hit the hardest. Income disparity, inequitable access to health care, language barriers and the number of people working essential jobs unable to earn a paycheckfrom the safety of their homes rise to the top of the long list of reasons. In Lane County, some were especially concerned about how Latino families would be hit. According to the latest Census data, Hispanic and Latino residents make up 9.3% of the county. This figure is likely a significant undercount, a report from the U.S Census Bureau itself detailed in March.

In preparation for what was sure to be a tale of two pandemics, leaders in area schools, service organizations and public health quickly assembled teams to work directly with those most at risk of getting the virus and suffering the worst effects of the economic fallout.

‘They are magic’: Eugene staff rally wraparound support team

Eugene School District’s family resource coordinator Alicia Longoria and wraparound program coordinator Vanessa Vasquez know the factors that lead to student success extend far beyond the classroom. Kids need more than supplies and a teacher to learn — they need clothes, food, health care, housing and stability. The two have been with Eugene 4J, the largest school district in the county, for nearly 20 years working in all kinds of positions that always come down to helping keep families who have language barriers, cultural differences or financial issues from falling through the cracks.

In March 2020, Longoria and Vasquez knew those families they worked with, already facing some sort of hardship and in need of support, were going to be hit hard. So they enlisted the help of other bilingual, bicultural staff to create a district wraparound team to support students and their families.

Working in partnership with other organizations such as FOOD for Lane County and the Eugene Education Foundation, the team distributed whatever they could to families in need of basics — toilet paper, groceries, gas and diapers. The list of families they served grew to 160, which added up to thousands of people. Some were Latino families, but those in need spanned race, ethnicity and even income.

“We also saw families that traditionally we don’t see because they’re middle class or upper middle class, and they have never found themselves in that need,” Longoria said. “They were in need for the first time.”

During a time when grocery stores were hectic and panicked people were stockpiling, the team went out to find the essentials families needed. Items like toilet paper were being sold in limited quantities, if they could be found at all. They said their bulk purchases raised staff eyebrows, and when they explained their mission, it didn’t always help.

“They were worried that we were going in and buying large purchases,” Vasquez said.

“And that we were going to cause problems because we were creating ‘a racial thing,’ ” Longoria said. “We were causing too much of a disturbance.”

Previous coverage:COVID-19 takes toll on Lane County Latino communities

Social justice protests heightened an already tense moment in time. At local grocery stores, the professionally dressed women wearing their 4J lanyards were sometimes met with suspicion, they shared.

“We felt like, if we were facing that, then what were our families facing?” Vasquez said.

Later in the summer, the team partnered with Grocery Outlet, which was extremely helpful, they said. They were able to augment food boxes from FOOD for Lane County to feed more people and mix in culturally appropriate foods families would recognize. The weekly pantries now serve an estimated 300 families.

They found parents picking up weekly boxes weren’t just in need of pantry staples — in those isolated times, they were in need of connection.

“Sometimes we were the only other adult they were checking in with,” Longoria said. “We had several parents just break down and cry there on the side of the curb.”

In the early days of the pandemic, Yesenia Gonzalez, a grandma and primary caretaker for two school-aged children, was worried about her family — one has diabetes and another was pregnant. The family of six was reliant on only two incomes and worried about their immunocompromised members.

Gonzalez quickly became emotional when The Register-Guard asked her what the team’s services have meant for her and her family.

“They are magic,” Gonzalez said. “They make me feel so comfortable here.”

She was an involved grandma before the pandemic hit, often helping with cultural events and in the classroom, so she was already connected with Longoria. In the spring of 2020, she was abruptly worried about what her family could afford and where was safe to go. The food boxes were a relief, she said.

In addition to meeting families’ most basic needs, the team hosted virtual cooking classes, cultural events, support groups and early literacy programs, some of which were provided pre-pandemic and adapted to work virtually.

These events helped Gonzalez meet other families in similar situations and build a new community. Connections were lost in the most isolating stages of the pandemic, but the wraparound team’s support created something new.

“This is not only an organization, it’s like a family,” Gonzalez said. “There’s not enough information for the Hispanic community where we can go, plus there’s not a lot where we can go (where people) can help us with heart.”

It’s part of Longoria and Vasquez’s jobs to be a go-between when families are trying to navigate the school system. But when accessible and Spanish-speaking resources are sparse, the wraparound team will facilitate with agencies outside of the school, Longoria said.

“When we’re out in the community, we try to identify who is the key person at that agency,” Longoria said. “Second, do they have somebody that can support in Spanish? We keep our list, most of the time it’s a no, it’ll be us supporting the family through the agency.”

When a house fire temporarily rendered a family homeless, the Red Cross responded, Longoria said, but they couldn’t communicate with the Spanish-speaking family. The 4J team stepped in, contacted the Red Cross, got the family a deposit for a rental and helped them handle the next steps while keeping the kids in their school.

This isn’t their typical work, but the team does anything they can to get families what they need for their students to succeed. This work is finally being recognized, the team shared.

“We’ve always known that needs of the families,” Vasquez said. “I think the pandemic was able to highlight it more at a district level, so the district could see the need and the work that we’ve already been doing.”

LCPH: Getting to people where they are

As vaccines started becoming available to the general public in April 2021, Lane County Public Health assembled bicultural, bilingual staff to create a mobile team for vaccines and testing.

“They have been going out into the community at large, but with a special focus on our Latinx community to do education outreach, to talk about vaccines, to counter misinformation, and really to build relationships and trust with community members,” said Sarah Swofford, field operations supervisor for Lane County Public Health.

LCPH looks at what are called social determinants of health — the conditions in the environments where people live that impact their health such as economic stability, health care quality and education quality. Access to health care can be measured through many variables, from access to fresh fruits and vegetables to being able to find affordable health care.

The 2020 Lane County Health Equity Report found higher rates of poverty, lower median income and few education opportunities for people of color than others in the county. The report also found this led to more risky behaviors and reduced use of health care services, creating higher rates of disease and increased mortality. For example, the 2018 medium income for white households was $51,026, but it was $44,27 for Latino households.

In an effort to distribute the vaccine equitably, LCPH worked in partnership with community-based organizations including Centro Latino Americano, Escudo Latino, Rural Organizing Project and Comunidad y Herencia Cultural. They held testing and vaccine clinics at food pantries, businesses and farms. The team sometimes went to people’s homes when residents were in need.

“We went to every farm in our county,” Swofford said.

An ongoing clinic that stuck out to her was one in front of El Kaiman Western Wear, a clothing store in Springfield, because the owner was supportive of getting vaccines out.

The mobile team also went to restaurants to connect with kitchen workers.

“At first it was like no one wanted to get a vaccine and then it’s like, well, maybe one person and then maybe another person and then they (kitchen staff) knew we were coming back and so they actually would bring their family,” Swofford said.

“So, it’s been this process of developing relationships and trust with community members.”

Much of the county’s work to get information, support and vaccines out to the community was made possible by community organizations, some of which were formed in response to pandemic-onset needs and some of which existed for a while but flexed their programming to take care of the sudden boom in need.

Previous Coverage:Lane County Public Health hopes to combat inequities in COVID-19 spread, vaccination

Three big community organizations stronger together

Centro Latino Americano, Downtown Languages and Huerto de la Familia, three of the bigger community organizations that focus on supporting Latino communities in the Eugene-Springfield area, joined as one in 2021.

The project of coming together started prior to the pandemic. The hope was to become a “one-stop-shop nonprofit with a wide variety of services,” Marissa Zarate, one of the new organization’s co-directors, said. The new organization’s name will be released later this year.

“(COVID) very much validated that this was the right thing for us to do,” Zarate said. “In times of crises we were much more equipped to address the impacts of that crisis in our community as a combined organization.”

The organization serves more than 500 families in the area. Zarate added the organizations have a long history of collaborating, but providing distinct services.

Centro Latino Americano has a focus on social services, basic needs, mental health resources and addiction recovery programs.

Downtown Languages focuses more on education, including literacy skills, computer technology, English language skills and help preparing for driver’s license exams. The language programs allow parents and kids to learn side by side.

Huerto de la Familia, which translates to The Family Garden in English, has the Organic Gardens Program, a community garden program located in spots sprinkled around Eugene and Springfield where families can have a plot to grow their own organic food. The program focuses on Latino and immigrant families but it’s open to all. Huerto provides the land as well as access to tools, supplies and workshops to make these gardens a success. Another big service is the Cambios Business Program, a 12-week Spanish-language business class for people who either want to launch a business or scale up and formalize their existing business.

“Each of our organizations had begun to identify leadership development and civic engagement as priorities for our agencies,” Zarate said. “We realized that we would be stronger coming together to create one Leadership Institute here for Latino immigrant families.”

The organizations had to scale up their existing programs and create new ones to respond to COVID. This included adding more staff, distributing more food, helping families deal with language barriers and digital divides, hosting their own culturally specific vaccine events, directly reaching out to families to offer support and helping the county disperse emergency funds. The group worked with Lane County Public Health and the Oregon Health Authority to distribute important COVID information in Spanish and make complicated information accessible.

The Cambios Business Program usually had classes of about 12, but it scaled up to 20.

“We saw the need for that program increase immensely and that was kind of surprising to me,” Zarate said. “I thought folks were going to be more focused on meeting their basic needs, but starting a business is a direct response to maybe not having control over other economic factors.”

Marcela Zecenarro’s homemade sauce company Aji only had five months of normalcy before the pandemic hit.

“Everything stopped. So a friend told me about the Cambios program, and I started with them,” Zecenarro said. She was slowly selling her first sauce at the time. “They helped me with some new ideas to face the pandemic. They gave me motivation and connections.”

The program helped her establish a booth at the Lane County Farmers Market and connected her with grants that helped her grow her business.

“Everything started to move forward,” she said.

Her product expanded to three sauces and can be found at local grocery stores as well as at the farmers market. Running her own business continues to have its challenges, she shared.

“Things are hard, nothing is easy,” Zecenarro said. “But the satisfaction I get from seeing my products on the market is priceless.”

Her hope is to maintain what she has now — to continue making unique sauces that share a taste of her culture with the community. She dreams of possibly opening a Peruvian restaurant in the future.

A big reason Centro Latino Americano, Downtown Languages and Huerto de la Familia were able to serve so many families is because they were already embedded in the community, Zarate said.

“It’s been stressful and hard to see so many clients we serve face immense hardship,” she said. “But also we’ve felt really good … we’ve been able to be a trusted source of information, a trusted source of access to testing and vaccines, rent assistance, food support, and all of those necessities families need to get through the pandemic.”

Is the support here to stay?

Locally, many of those who rose up in anticipation of health disparities and worked to mitigate them are hoping for lasting change.

The wraparound team at 4J is confident that what it created to respond to the pandemic is here to stay as it settles into its new location, a house next to River Road/El Camino del Río Elementary School. After being moved around different locations, the Family Welcome Center is its new home. The team is funded through the next year and it has hope for the future as long as the new superintendent continues to support its work, as the Interim Superintendent Cydney Vandercar has as well as the district’s equity directors.

The wraparound team also has two cultural navigators who help with the services it offers including enrollment, referral to services, communicating with schools, adult education and cultural and academic events. The house has workstations, a shower and a laundry room that will soon be open to families.

“My hope is for us to be a one-stop place where a newcomer family or any Latino family to come here and get all the services they need and questions answered … instead of sending them all over the district,” Vasquez said.

The new space has made it easier to work together and organize various supplies and donations, but Vasquez thinks the team may outgrow it soon. For now, she’s excited the district is seeing the need for the team.

“Hopefully, it’s going to continue to grow,” she said.

A simple change that can be made throughout the area that would make people feel more included and acknowledge just how multicultural the community is to provide more information in Spanish, business owners, parents and school staff alike shared.

“We’re a minority,” Longoria, with 4J, said. “But we’re a very big percentage of the city.”

Swofford, with Lane County Public Health, also believes the pandemic brought “a fundamental shift and improvement” toward equity that is here to stay.

The county embedded an equity officer in the emergency structure when the pandemic began. This was the first time someone in the highest levels of LCPH leadership had a position through an emergency that explicitly focused on equity, Swofford shared.

“That is really the new best practice across the country in terms of emergency activations,” Swofford said. “I absolutely believe that that is something that will be carried forward from now on … no matter what the emergency is.”

The push toward modernizing public health, a national and statewide effort to invest in public health and address inequities in health access, had already begun, she said.

“All of those things were already in motion before COVID-19,” Swofford said. “But I think with COVID, this has really kind of cinched the deal.”

As the flow of federal emergency funding dries up, community-based organizations have yet to see if wellness and civic programs will continue to see support. Zarate hopes people will see the value of investing in Lane County Latino businesses, wellness and civic engagement.

“COVID exacerbated existing issues, but also highlighted them in a way that I think offers us an opportunity to move forward in addressing that with some long-term solutions,” Zarate said. “Business as normal wasn’t really working before COVID. It didn’t work during COVID. And this is our chance to create something new.”

Editor’s note:An earlier version of this story had a photo that incorrectly described the Cambios Business Program. It’s run by Huerto de la Familia.

Contact reporter Tatiana Parafiniuk-Talesnick at or 541-521-7512. Follow her on Twitter @TatianaSophiaPT.

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