Communities connect and celebrate after three years of pandemic response

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  • Staff of La Clinica posing in the photo booth wearing goofy hats and glasses

“I’m so excited I could cry,” said Betty Brown, executive director of Portland Open Bible Community Pantry, as she surveyed the celebratory crowd that filled a Portland hotel ballroom.

Brown was one of nearly 300 people representing more than 100 community-based organizations (CBO) gathered April 26 at the Holiday Inn Portland Airport. They came to celebrate three years of fighting COVID-19 at the community level through partnerships with Oregon Health Authority (OHA). Whether it’s feeding or vaccinating people, educating them on the virus, contact tracing, paying utility bills or driving community members to their doctor’s appointments, CBOs from across the state have partnered with OHA to meet nearly every challenge the pandemic throws at them.

Brown’s teary excitement was not only about what has been accomplished, but also for what the future may hold.

“I keep saying CBOs were like a sleeping giant laying there in our state doing amazing work, but nobody knew about it until now,” Brown said. “I pray the legislature understands what can actually be achieved if they connect with CBOs, that if we’re really going to be equitable, CBOs are the place to start doing that work.”

Early in the pandemic, it became clear that communities that experienced health disparities were more severely impacted by COVID-19. OHA knew that CBOs and their deep community ties would be key. The agency has granted COVID-19 response funds to CBOs from Vaccine Operations Team Equity (VOTE), Protecting Oregon Farmworkers (POF) and the COVID-19 Community Engagement Team (CET).

Those who attended the Holiday Inn party were shocked at how many people showed up. Some drove six hours from far away corners of Oregon. Many couldn’t believe that so many other people were just as dedicated to keeping Oregonians safe from the pandemic. It was a day of food, speeches, breakout sessions and storytelling, accented with laughs and hugs and rounded out with a dance party.

Betty Brown, executive director of Portland Open Bible Community Pantry

A leap of faith

For Betty Brown, the Portland Open Bible Community Pantry has always been dedicated to distributing food to underserved people from its southeast Portland location, but COVID-19 kicked the non-profit’s mission into a higher gear. The need was greater, the work was riskier, and Brown wanted to offer community members more than just food.

So with some trepidation, Brown applied for, and received, her group’s first OHA grant.

“It was kind of scary,” Brown said, “because we didn’t know OHA, and they didn’t know us, but we took the plunge anyway.”

Throughout the pandemic, Brown and her staff have used OHA funding to educate people about COVID-19. They trained instructors, set up classrooms and taught anyone willing to take the classes, which were offered for free in multiple languages. They also helped people who got sick—picking up prescriptions, delivering food and helping pay bills. They hosted countless vaccination clinics in partnership with OHA’s VOTE program and helped distribute air conditioners provided by OHA to vulnerable populations during the searing summer heat. Brown also credits OHA with giving her “the backbone” to go to Salem and speak directly to legislators.

“I never knew OHA got so connected with the community,” Brown said. “Never in a thousand years did I imagine that they would be involved on this level.”

Askina Sharif, program director for African Youth & Community Organization (left), and Wajdi Said, president of Muslim Educational Trust (right)

Collaboration and trust

Askina Sharif is the program director for Portland-based African Youth & Community Organization (AYCO), which provides East African immigrant and refugee families community and social services assistance. During the party, Sharif recorded bits of audio on his phone and sent them to friends in his home country, Somalia.

“They were fascinated,” Sharif said. “They could hear all the music from different cultures, you know, Indian music, Spanish music, Somali music, R&B, and they were like, ‘Are you serious? You’re at a meeting in the United States?’ I told them, ‘Yes, this is a diverse country!”

The biggest obstacle for AYCO in keeping its community safe was skepticism about the vaccine and government distrust. But leaders at AYCO used their influence and the trust they’d built within the community to convince people the vaccine was safe and lifesaving. With “robust” support from OHA, AYCO hosted many vaccination clinics at its southeast Portland location.

“The collaboration with OHA is wonderful, and also upfront and very open,” Sharif said. “They check on us every other week, we have our meetings and stuff, trying to figure out what is working what’s not. For us to be able to help our community because of OHA… it means a lot. That’s the bottom line.”

Hector Zaragoza, vaccine engagement coordinator with OHA’s VOTE team (left), Rachel Gustafson, coalition manager at Creating Community Resilience (center), and Mina Craig, COVID community engagement coordinator at OHA (right)

Patience and energy

Rachel Gustafson drove up to Portland by herself from Roseburg, where she is coalition manager for Creating Community Resilience (CCR), a group that supports communities throughout Douglas County most impacted by personal, family and community trauma. Thanks to a couple of OHA grants, CCR held vaccination events where community members could also connect with other nonprofits for wellness services, such as domestic violence support, parent education and food support. For Gustafson, it was the energy and technical support she most appreciated.

“We love working with OHA. Having a community engagement coordinator to talk to, email and answer questions, was very helpful,” Gustafson said. “OHA’s fiscal team was so attentive and patient with us as we worked together to fill out all the forms and documentation, but I never felt rushed. They also brought a really great, positive energy to something that was really, really hard.”

And this was only the beginning. CCR recently received a tobacco prevention grant from OHA.

“We’re really looking forward to keeping our relationship with OHA going in any capacity that fits within our organization,” Gustafson said.

Stronger together

Olivia Robinson (left) and Julia Brown (right), community outreach and engagement managers for Age+

Julia Brown is community outreach and engagement manager with Age+, a group that advocates for older Oregonians, especially those who are isolated, low-income and underserved. OHA grants helped Julia and her team send out mailings to people age 65+ in a dozen rural counties, teaching them how to stay safe, get free transportation and get vaccinated. They also partnered with OHA’s field operations team to visit low-income apartment complexes where many older people lived to vaccinate them.

A pleasant and notable surprise, Brown says, is how OHA introduced Age+ to organizations across the state with similar or complementary missions, laying the groundwork to join forces for a common cause.

“OHA brought so many of us together and continues to build connections for us,” Brown said, gazing around the buzzing room. “That’s only going to carry forward with agency preparedness, housing, workforce, transportation. To me, it’s all public health, and OHA feels that way as well. Today, my cup is overflowing with gratitude.”

One day in Sweet Home

Russell Langrine, program manager for Oregon Marshallese Community Association

For Russell Langrine, it was one moment on one particular day that he will always remember.

Langrine is program manager for the Oregon Marshallese Community Association (OMCA), based in Salem, which supports the needs of Marshallese immigrants getting settled in Oregon and navigating social services. The non-profit used OHA grants for COVID-19 community outreach and education, contact tracing and vaccination events. During an early lockdown, he heard about a woman in need in Sweet Home. She was White, not Marshallese, but it didn’t matter. Using what he learned from OHA’s outreach training, Langrine immediately called her and learned she was experiencing domestic problems with her partner, had moved into a motel with her three kids and had no food.

Langrine had no idea where Sweet Home was. He’d only recently moved to Oregon from the Marshall Islands to be close to his grandchildren, but after firing up his GPS, Langrine drove an hour to the motel.

“I dropped off her food outside her door, stepped back and watched when she opened the door and the kids popped out,” Langrine recalled. “It just makes you feel so good, providing a service like that for a mom who’s struggling. Every time I get down, I think about that day in Sweet Home, that there’s somebody out there that needs this, so you have to stay on top of your game and keep going.”

Langrine also echoed Julia Brown’s excitement about meeting other CBOs at the party and joining forces.

“I just met a lady who works with retirees in Coos Bay, and I’m like ‘I can volunteer to work with you! You’re at the coast, I love the coast! I can come out and spend the day with you!’”

OHA’s Community Engagement Program Manager, Dolly England (left) and Erlette Upshaw, executive director at Coos Elderly Services (right)

Listening to community

Dolly England darted around the event like a bride at a wedding, getting waved at and hugged at nearly every turn. Everyone knew her. Originally with OHA’s reproductive health program, England volunteered to lead the agency’s COVID-19 Community Engagement Team (CET) three years ago and never looked back.

The party was her brainchild.

“We’ve changed how OHA should partner with community and show up for community, and it’s evident in this event,” England said. “If you listen to community, they will tell you what they need… every, single, time. This celebration today is for them. This is the only thing I could give them—a dope party to say ‘thank you.’”

Between England and counterparts, OHA partnered with 173 CBOs across Oregon during the pandemic. They’ve collaborated on 1,670 vaccination events and partnered with local public health agencies in every county to provide outreach and education, contact tracing and wraparound services to communities who have been most impacted by the pandemic. They’ve reached 746,626 individuals and counting at in-person outreach and education events and assisted 128,136 individuals and counting with wraparound support. (Wrapround support helps people who must isolate during a COVID-19 illness and can include transportation, delivering culturally appropriate food, paying bills or rent, or helping people move into and pay for a hotel room.)

The work of CBOs in Oregon is far from over. But on this day it was time to pause, and celebrate.

Members of OHA’s Vaccine Operations Team Equity (VOTE), Protecting Oregon Farmworkers (POF) and the COVID-19 Community Engagement Team (CET)