At the start of the pandemic in March 2020, Dawn Martinez Oropeza, Executive Director of Al Éxito, worried how her organization would continue its programming with little operating funds left. But she knew the need among youth, as well the broader Latinx community, was great.
A needs assessment confirmed that many Latinx families in rural communities were working without any safety precautions, while many families in Greater Des Moines were suddenly unemployed. Most youth participating in the organization’s programs didn’t have technology to access virtual schooling, and their families were struggling to pay rent and purchase food.
“Many families remained willfully hidden during this time, reluctant to seek assistance,” said Martinez Oropeza. “They were worried people were going to accuse them of taking assistance when a lot of them are in immigration status. They wouldn’t even ask their church.”
The American Friends Service Committee convened weekly meetings of immigrant advocates to keep everyone informed on what was happening across the state. They heard stories of immigrants employed in meatpacking plants with no protection other than a nylon sheet between workers. Communities where plants were located saw spikes in COVID-19 infections.
These outbreaks heightened fears among Latinx people. In an Al Éxito evaluation, one youth said that they were not allowed to leave the house because their parents were scared people would blame them for the coronavirus.
Mid-Iowa Health Foundation, as a member of the Greater Des Moines Disaster Recovery Fund COVID-19 Grantmaking Committee, listened to these challenges and helped bring together Al Éxito, Proteus, Inc., and American Friends Service Committee to seek advice on how to support the Latinx community. These three organizations created a fund to help cover rent, utilities, health care bills, and other needs of central Iowans to fill this identified gap in assistance. Within two days, the program was up and running with an initial $25,000 grant from the Disaster Recovery Fund.
As those dollars quickly ran out, additional donors supported the fund, including Mid-Iowa Health Foundation. An anonymous donor stepped in with a $900,000 gift to expand the geographic scope of the work. Martinez Oropeza hired two students to do outreach in the community.
Within a few months, $1.1 million went to more than 1,000 households, impacting 4,000 Iowans.
Previous studies had already shown technology to be a huge barrier for Latinx students. “Our kids didn’t have access to reliable technology or internet,” Martinez Oropeza said, “and so I knew the state of schooling was going to be devastating.”
In spring 2020, Al Éxito provided mobile hotspots and helped families apply for Mediacom’s internet assistance program. Martinez Oropeza drove food to families’ houses throughout Des Moines. Her organization provided a mental health workshop to help students with stress.
As Des Moines Public Schools remained virtual for most of the fall and winter, Al Éxito created Compa en Camino (Partners on the Go) with Disaster Recovery Fund support. The program accepted calls from students any time and paired each student with a mentor.
After a school district employee heard about the program, calls exploded. Al Éxito served K-12 students, offering tutoring in five languages. It advocated for families’ needs with the school district and, when students returned to school in person, provided transportation for students to get there.
Experiencing the huge gap in assistance for the Latinx community led Al Éxito to launch the Latinx Project with initial grants from Mid-Iowa Health Foundation and the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines. The project is gathering data on the Latinx community and elevating Latinx leaders.
“It is time to make everybody feel like they’re a part of the community,” said Martinez Oropeza. “The political rhetoric about Latinos has already done damage to the kids. Latinos are going to be one in five Polk County residents in 20 years, and they don’t feel supported right now.”
Al Éxito is expanding its Compa en Camino program to create a center where Latinx individuals and others can go for information and assistance. Martinez Oropeza hopes to secure funding to continue the program past summer 2021.
As meatpacking plants experienced COVID-19 outbreaks, Proteus reached out to state leaders to put measures in place that would protect the 3,000 migrant farmworkers set to arrive in summer 2020. Many traveled from other places and resided in communal settings in rural areas, playing a vital role in Iowa’s agricultural economy.
These meetings led to state support to implement safety measures, including offering free testing, placing workers in pods of 2-4 people, providing hotel rooms to quarantine if anyone tested positive, serving hot meals twice a day, and having follow-up health care on site. The organization also provided information about testing and safety measures to address misconceptions.
Daniel Zinnel, CEO of Proteus, called these measures “lifesaving.” While cases spiked occasionally, outbreaks were quickly contained.
Proteus also saw a new opportunity to provide its primary health care services at meatpacking plants. The organization launched a pilot project at one facility in summer 2021 to test a model it hopes will improve the health and well-being of employees and their families, while improving business performance.
Looking back on the past year, Erica Johnson, Founding Executive Director of Iowa Migrant Movement for Justice (formerly the American Friends Service Committee and Iowa Justice for Our Neighbors organizations), said there is “an overarching feeling of anxiety that we couldn’t do more. The need is so great, and there’s so much to do, and we just can’t anymore.”
Johnson was in the process of launching the newly merged organization when the pandemic hit. It became an opportunity to recognize the strengths of her organization and the role it could play. Relying on trusted relationships with immigrant and refugee organizations across Iowa, the organization convened meetings to identify needs and common areas of concern and then connect people to resources.
The lack of safety at meatpacking plants was one concern. Iowa’s English-only law discouraged public agencies from reaching out to non-English speaking communities, and assistance was unavailable for undocumented immigrants.
“There was a lack of capacity from the get-go,” Johnson said, “and then the expectation we would pick up the pieces when the pieces or systems should have been in place.”
Her organization hired an organizer to work with employees at meatpacking plants after seeing the hardships they faced as essential workers.
The organizations involved in responding to the pandemic continue to meet and plan to address needs that are still unmet. The Latinx Project will release data toward the end of 2021 in an effort to spotlight the needs and strengths of the Latinx community.
View grants Mid-Iowa Health Foundation made to support COVID-19 relief efforts.
How nonprofit leaders brought attention to the Latinx community and built new systems of support during the pandemic
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