The staff at Worcester State’s Latino Education Institute has long promoted educational equity. When the pandemic hit, however, they suddenly had to take on a new role.
“We had to quickly pivot and also become health advocates,” Hilda Ramirez, LEI executive director, says. “When you’re talking about vulnerable communities like the Latino community, you really have to address health equity along with education because you can’t learn if you’re not well or experiencing trauma.”
Within weeks of the March 2020 pandemic shutdown in our area, UMass Memorial Health Care already had amassed data showing that COVID-19 was intensifying long-standing health equity issues in the Latino community. “They wanted to meet with us to discuss the disparities that were showing up at the hospital level,” Ramirez says. “They asked LEI to be part of a health equity task force, and from those discussions, it was obvious we had to help in addressing those concerns.”
LEI joined outreach teams working closely with Umass Memorial and Worcester Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Mattie Castiel to assist with testing and vaccination. The teams, called ‘health ambassadors,’ go out into areas where, at first, there was a lot of misinformation around COVID and how to stay safe from the infection. More recently, the teams have provided information to counter vaccine hesitancy.
To support those efforts, LEI received a federal REACH grant (Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health), administered through the City of Worcester Department of Public Health. The $312,513 grant also funds efforts to promote health awareness on other issues, including nutrition, physical fitness, breastfeeding and early education, to combat the elevated incidence of conditions like diabetes and heart disease among Latinos.
The grant allows LEI to hire and train WSU students and people from the Latino community to reach out with health information in Spanish and Portuguese and answer questions people may have. When the data reveals areas where the vaccination rate is lagging, LEI’s health ambassadors go there, Spanish-language fact sheets in hand, to encourage people to get the shot, and let them know when vaccination clinics or testing will be available.
Claudia Oliveira de Paiva ’23, an international student from Brazil who speaks Spanish as well her native language Portuguese, is LEI’s health ambassadors program coordinator. The team she leads is made up of eight Worcester State students of different ethnic backgrounds, all of whom receive extensive ongoing training from UMass and the Worcester Division of Public Health.
“We go out into the neighborhoods to advocate and talk with people,” Paiva says. “Maybe they don’t have anybody to ask who has reliable information or they don’t visit doctors regularly, or they’re concerned about vaccines. Our outreach efforts give them the opportunity to interact with people who speak their own language and provide the information and the resources they need.”
Since the start of the pandemic, the ambassadors have handed out about 110,000 health care kits, which include masks, hand sanitizers, disinfecting wipes, and flyers with educational materials. The kits often serve as icebreakers for conversations that go beyond the pandemic. “We address all the crucial, yet sensitive issues people have been struggling with, such as food and housing insecurity” Paiva says. “For example, we tell them about where to find a fitness program for the family, how to access SNAP benefits, eviction or health insurance resources; or how to access transportation to and from the clinics or the food pantries.”
The help the ambassadors provide can be far more than just informational. They have provided life-changing support in some critical instances.
Paiva was among LEI facilitators who pitched in when both parents of two girls, ages 12 and 10, fell ill with COVID-19. The parents were not hospitalized but were too sick to cook or do much else to care for the girls. “They didn’t have anyone else here in the city to help them, so LEI stepped in to help, doing things like checking on them and providing free hot meals through some of the resources available in the community,” Paiva says.
After she recovered, the girls’ mother wrote to thank the LEI team. “She wrote such a beautiful letter,” Paiva says. “She said: ‘If it weren’t for LEI and the love you gave to my girls, I don’t know how we could have survived those pandemic days.’”
Heartfelt feedback like that helps Paiva keep her spirits up even though some of the situations she encounters – with the homeless, the substance-dependent, and others – can feel weighty and sad.
“It’s hard sometimes, and sometimes when people cry all you can do is cry with them. But then, you get a letter like that or the kids you have gotten to know in the communities come running up and hug you, and that’s when you know what you’re doing is making a difference. At the end of the day, it’s all just very rewarding.”
Editor’s Note: This story appears in the Winter 2021/22 issue of Worcester State Magazine.
Photo: Hilda Ramirez and Claudia Oliveira de Paiva ’23 | By Rob Carlin
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