Combating COVID-19 at the grassroots level
Early last spring when Anthony Veliz reached out to Latino leaders statewide, he had no idea how important his gesture would become.
"I would have never guessed in March how this would go, but it really struck a chord with the Latino leadership across the state," Veliz said, referring to the nascent Oregon Latinx Leadership Network. "In some way, a little beam of light traveled throughout the state and galvanized the community."
Last week, OLLN announced the launch of a health and safety campaign — "Por Mi Familia" — directed at encouraging the state's Latino and indigenous populations toward safe practices during the pandemic. A key piece of that campaign involved purchasing five million pieces of personal protection equipment to distribute to the most vulnerable populations in the state, populations that have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19.
"It's mostly facemasks and we are targeting groups, like farm workers — some undocumented — and we put a high priority on them, but some will go to others as well. ... We will make sure (PPE) gets to the people who need it the most," Veliz said.
A lifelong Woodburn resident, Veliz began reaching out to Latino leaders across the state when the pandemic emerged last March. He had a strong feeling that the population would need to fortify its safety efforts, in part due to communication challenges, in part due to many working in essential occupations,, and to some extent due to employers not furnishing PPE or worse, claiming that it was not necessary.
Communication obstacles go beyond English or Spanish languages as many indigenous workers may speak a dialect from a specific region in Latin America that is foreign to Oregon's Spanish-speaking residents, or they may speak a dialect but not read it.
Beyond the obvious immediate safety benefit provided by PPE, there is also an educational one.
"There is a false narrative out there that there is a lot of personal protective equipment available; there is for those who can afford them," Veliz said.
OLLN leaders have shared stories about work supervisors claiming the pandemic is a hoax and that workers don't need masks, and some employers don't provide masks for employees.
"Those are some of the stories that we've heard and it doesn't surprise us," Veliz said.
So by making PPE available, that availability in turn promotes the education of its importance.
"Many of Oregon's Latinos and indigenous (people) are essential workers who are lacking new or proper PPE, which puts them at a higher risk for contracting COVID-19," Veliz stressed.
Partners in distribution
OLLN applied for and received a $5 million equity grant to purchase the PPE, and then partnered with the Oregon Child Development Coalition and the Oregon Human Development Corporation to distribute it to many rural parts of Oregon.
OCDC operates in 12 Oregon counties, offering support services to migrant and seasonal farmworkers and young children. Many of their clients are at or below the federal poverty level.
"OCDC is pleased to partner with OLLN to get PPE to our families," said OCDC Executive Director Donalda Dodson. "Families are often responsible for purchasing these items, and being able to provide them at no cost is helping to ensure people have masks and other items to keep them safe."
OHDC provides services for farm workers and disadvantaged individuals statewide, and will help OLLN distribute PPE to small businesses and more than 50 community-based organizations that serve Latino communities.
"OHDC is honored to partner with the Oregon Latinx Leadership Network to serve Oregon's farm-working community," said Silvia Muñoz Lozano with OHDC's National Farmworkers Program. "During this time of COVID, our farm workers remain vulnerable to the spread of the virus. OHDC will ensure PPE is visible and accessible for one of Oregon's most vulnerable essential workers."
The OLLN catalyst
When the newly formed human interest group first began to formulate, Veliz said he reached out to more than 80 community leaders across the state, among them Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden and many state representatives, including Teresa Alonso Leon, whose district serves Woodburn, Gervais, Brooks and parts of north Salem.
The timing could not have been more crucial.
Veliz says the costs of masks, gloves, and other forms of PPE created added stress on many families, small business owners, and community-based organizations that serve the Latino community.
"It is critical that we break down any barriers to help people get proper PPE. In Oregon, 35% of the people who contracted COVID-19 have been Latino," Veliz said. "Affordability cannot be a reason for people not being able to protect themselves and their loved ones at home. This is what we should be doing during this unprecedented time — working together to solve problems and taking care of our communities."
The Oregon Latinx Leadership Network exists to build and strengthen community and resilience among the Latinx community, to organize and advocate around a strategic budget and policy agenda, and to partner with leaders and public officials to advance change to enhance the well-being of all Oregonians.
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