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Stories from the Front Lines

April 24, 2020

Melissa Potts

Melissa Potts, Canal Alliance ESL Senior Manager shares her perspective on communicating with and supporting ESL students and her personal struggles during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. 

Melissa Potts

On March 13th, I drove to San Francisco to try on bridesmaid dresses with a friend. There was no traffic on the bridge, no one in the streets, and we found parking right away – all of which are novelties when you go to the city. I had no idea at that moment, excited about my friend’s wedding in the Catskill Mountains, how life would change in so little time. The days that followed were surreal. The only other time life felt that surreal to me was after September 11th.  

On the following Monday, March 16th, the day started with the Canal Alliance ESL education team calling all 258 students enrolled in our ESL program. We made phone call after phone call listening to the sadness and desperation in our students’ voices. Student after student had lost their job, didn’t have health insurance, and didn’t have enough food to eat. It was incredibly difficult to make these calls. Many of us on the team were experiencing our own trauma from sheltering in place, which was compounded through our phone conversations with students. The pain that came after each phone call began to stack, brick after brick, creating a towering wall of collective grief and pain. 

Canal Alliance is in the heart of the Canal. You can give the facts about it: the Canal is a densely populated area, the majority of residents are immigrants from Latin America, many people in the community have not had formal education. Oftentimes we think about the absence of things in this community that many of us, as Americans, don’t need to worry about.  

But the Canal is inhabited by vibrant people who value community, who have hidden strengths, and most importantly, have a tremendous will to survive. This is why it has been so difficult to see so many of the people we care about struggle on a regular basis to get work, feed and clothe themselves, and still have the strength and desire to learn English to improve their lives and break the generational cycle of poverty. 

Our vibrant community has stepped up on the front lines to begin the healing practices that many of us are familiar with. During this chaotic time filled with uncertainties, many people I care about have committed themselves to helping the people we love. I am reminded again and again how essential and vital community is. For us, it’s exemplified at the end of each semester: when we ask students to fill out a survey, all of them put down that they love Canal Alliance because we are a community. They feel a part of this community, feel seen and most importantly, feel valued. 

During this time, volunteers have asked how they can help the students they care so deeply about. Our volunteers are donating to the Canal Alliance Client Support Fund and coming up with creative solutions to continue working with students. Volunteers are facetiming students, emailing with them, and most importantly, they are thinking about them and care about them as valued members of our community. 

During this time, I have come to develop a deeper respect for the people that I work with. Teams have come together to help as many people as possible. I’ve seen tremendous amounts of leadership from my ESL staff. My silent, brilliant staff have become pillars of strength for our students, despite their own personal struggles. 

Quarantining has been difficult for me personally. As a person with a chronic illness, I have struggled as my health care provider made the decision to cancel all non-essential appointments to keep healthcare providers safe.  

Yet, in a time filled with darkness, frustration, sadness, and fright, I’m learning to move around the world in a different way. I am reacquainting myself with the neighborhood that I live in and have taken for granted. I walk around and am blessed with little gems of beauty from the flowers I see, to the houses that have their own unique personalities.  

And I receive reminders of just how small the world can be. For example, I called a client to talk about a potential job for them. As it turned out, his first job in the US was in a neighborhood called Casa Blanca in Riverside, a city that’s part of the Inland Empire in southern California, and the exact place where my parents were married.  It brought tears to my eyes because it’s amazing how important connecting to people really is. 

We are all part of this community, and we won’t get through it alone. It’s going to take effort on all of our parts if we’re able to begin to think about getting back to our daily lives in a world that will look very different than it once did. And I’m happy to know that in a time when there is so much uncertainty, the one thing I CAN be sure of is that my community will be there to step up and hold each other up. 

Learn more about our Crisis Response & Impact


While we hear many devastating individual stories, we are inspired by the resilience of our clients. We are also heartened by the generosity of our volunteers and donors who support our emergency response efforts.

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