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Implementing creative solutions for health education during COVID-19

July 30, 2020


Fernando Barreto, Community Engagement Manager
Fernando Barreto, Canal Alliance Community Engagement Manager

I first understood the challenges faced by Canal Alliance twelve weeks ago when shelter in place started. We had to respond quickly to educate Canal residents about COVID-19 and modify how we would continue providing our services .

I’ve also had to adapt how I do my job with many new limitations and challenges. Doing in-person outreach was no longer an option, so I had to explore new ways to keep the community informed, motivated and organized. In my role as Community Engagement Manager, I’m always connecting with people, mainly Canal residents. I use several strategies like in-person outreach, education and visiting places where the community gathers, like the food pantry and our COVID-19 testing site .

Messaging, Resources and Information about COVID-19

At first, information was changing quickly. To keep the community informed, I put together the latest news each week for clients, including resources, information about COVID-19, financial assistance, unemployment, tax support and the 2020 Census. I gathered all this information and printed it on a flyer that was easy to read and include in the grocery bags at our food pantry.

The health crisis made things more challenging because we were receiving conflicting information. For example, at first, health authorities told us not to wear masks. Later, there were new policies at local and national level that required wearing masks. It continues to be important for us to share the latest updates with clients and communicate what health authorities are saying about how to prevent transmission of the virus.

Doing this work requires understanding that folks are living through a horrendous hardship, which has no precedent. It’s been a good opportunity for me to connect with them through kindness and compassion. Each client is important to us and Canal Alliance exists because of them.

This role has required a lot of communication skills as well as understanding that we are different and living all this madness in different ways. For example, the needs of a young family are not the same as an elderly couple or a worker from Central America that may not have any family here in Marin. I try to get all clients to understand and learn about what resources are available for them.

Connecting with Clients and Sharing Crucial Information

During our weekly food pantry, I answer questions about all types of topics while clients wait in line. At times, it has been challenging to make the connection with clients because of cultural and educational differences. Building trust was a big challenge at the beginning. Now that we have more trust, I’m there to provide resources, alternatives and a timeline for when they will hear back from us about a particular issue. If clients aren’t wearing a mask, we provide them with one. I’ve also been educating people about how transmission of the virus happens, the importance of wearing a mask, how to properly wear one, and how to wash and re-use it. I do the same thing with education around social distancing. Once you explain how transmission happens, clients are able to understand and stick to the recommendations of the health authorities.

I also use this time to connect with clients about the 2020 Census . I emphasize the importance of the census and how it will impact each one of us for the next 10 years. Especially now, it’s important that we understand how it’s related to emergency preparedness and if we want to have better services whenever a crisis like this happens, it’s important that we’re all counted.

I help connect elderly clients with the services they qualify for and that they didn’t know how to access. I talk to expecting mothers in line or people with young children. For children, it has been a very confusing and hard time to process. I like to talk playfully talk to kids, make jokes and give them a book. I try to give them a moment of fun where they can submerge themselves in a fantasy world while waiting in line for food with their moms. Overall, I offer dignity and humanity to Canal residents by following my values of kindness and compassion. I listen to their concerns and am there to help clarify misconceptions, provide scientific data and information.

As an immigrant myself, two of the things that I think people must have at all times when you move to the U.S. are optimism and hope. Combined with hard work, curiosity, creativity, and with the capacity of making connections is what is going to bring you better opportunities. I also see this reflected in our clients and Canal residents. In the past 12 weeks I’ve seen a lot of optimism, hope and growth. Clients have begun to consistently follow Canal Alliance’s recommendations. I believe that with this new understanding, people in our community will learn how to avoid contracting the virus and improve the situation in our community.

The determination, consistency and optimism of our clients is inspiring for me. I see many regulars, at least in the food pantry line. We’ve started to get to know each other. We have been able to connect with stories and smile from behind our masks, because you can definitely feel a smile even though you can’t see it.

Looking ahead

When I feel lost, unmotivated or frustrated, I go back to the values I stand for: inclusion, opportunity, and compassion for myself and others. Especially at times when I feel overwhelmed with the unfairness I’m seeing, I go back to my values and reconnect with people who have common values. I believe this is how we create community and as a team, we’re able to continue to help others in need.

What gives me hope is people’s willingness to be better and to do better: their determination, creativity, passion, innovation and resilience. If you put all those values together and wrap it up in a smile, that’s the path I want to follow. Those are actually the kind of people I’ve always been surrounded by – optimistic people that always meet every day with a big smile, who keep their chins up and move forward. There’s no stopping us now. Like the food pantry, we were cancelled at the beginning and now we’re getting back to action. That gives me comfort and security.

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