Like most folks in the United States, Sil Ganzó didn’t spend much time pondering the implications of the COVID-19 virus during January and February. It wasn’t until early March that things became real for the founder and executive director of ourBRIDGE for KIDS, an after-school program for Charlotte’s immigrant and refugee children.
Things became all too real as March progressed, however, and when Gov. Cooper issued an executive order on March 14 closing all public schools, Ganzó knew that she and her staff couldn’t just go home and wait for the crisis to pass.
Four days after Cooper’s announcement, Ganzó found herself driving around the east Charlotte neighborhoods where many of her ourBRIDGE students live, delivering free meals to families as part of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) meal-distribution program that launched on March 17. She started with 40 breakfasts and 40 lunches on March 18, and she and her team are now delivering 1,000 of each every day.
As of Thursday, ourBRIDGE for Kids, with help from the Charlotte-based Migrant Assistance Project, had delivered 16,530 breakfasts, lunches and care packages to east Charlotte families. Next week, thanks to a $40,000 grant from the local COVID-19 Response Fund, Ganzó and her team will add dinner to the menu, expanding on the vast services they’ve implemented in a short time.
“What I’m most proud of is that we were dynamic enough and we have been resourceful enough to not miss a beat,” Ganzó said on Thursday. “How much worse than a pandemic could it get? And we still figured out within 48 hours how to make this happen.”
Despite successfully transitioning to offer mobile support services, the ourBRIDGE team still struggles with confronting systemic issues such as health care, unemployment, stable housing and disseminating accurate information, all of which regularly affect the immigrant community and have only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis.
An organizational pivot
Ganzó credits her organization’s quick transition to her staff of three full-time and 22 part-time employees, all of whom she has kept on the payroll thanks to the continued support of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers (CCLC) initiative, which provides federal funding to after-school programs that serve underserved communities.
After the schools had closed, Ganzó originally reached out to Rosanna Saladin-Subero, assistant director of community partnerships with CMS, who suggested that Ganzó deliver meals to families in the communities she serves — families that may not be able to make it to the different CMS meal distribution sites every day.
“So I started a pilot program,” Ganzó recalled. “I picked up 40 lunches and 40 breakfasts from Winterfield [Elementary School]. I just went to the neighborhoods and opened the car door and asked families if they wanted it and they were gone within like 20 minutes.”
The next day, Ganzó got approval from CCLC to shift operational funding from serving kids at the ourBRIDGE center off of Shamrock Drive to delivering meals to their homes. From there, everyone got to work.
“Part-time staff have taken on the ridiculously committed and selfless responsibility of delivering food,” Ganzó said. “No one signed up for that when they applied to work for us, and they are really risking their own health and it’s amazing. None of them doubted for a second that they would do it.”
Every weekday morning, staff members pick up meals from CMS sites and deliver them to the homes of ourBRIDGE families. When they’re finished with home deliveries, they set-up in neighborhood parks and other spots around east Charlotte where there are high refugee and immigrant populations. Families have already begun expecting them at these locations, where they hand out meals one by one, no questions asked.
The ourBRIDGE staff eventually joined forces with the Migrant Assistance Project, a grassroots volunteer group that has provided supplies for more than 2,000 meal deliveries on the weekends.
The coalition has also delivered 600 care packages to students’ families and others in need on the weekends. Those packages include school supplies, books, activities, toiletries and other necessities to help families through the stay-at-home order.
As everyone in Charlotte struggles through an international crisis in which public health fears mix with economic anxiety, the immigrant population has been especially affected. For many, the language barrier is just a starting point for troubles in a trying time.
“We’ve been trying to provide as much information to our families as possible … but both health and government officials just do not have anything in the languages that our families need,” said Elisa Benitez, administrative assistant with ourBRIDGE.
She pointed out that while Charlotte has media outlets and other resources to keep Hispanic residents informed, the city is also home to people from a range of other countries in Southeast Asia, Africa, the Middle East and other locations.
“I think the fact that we’re not meeting the needs of these communities as well is extremely frustrating, and a little bit irresponsible in some ways, because we’re not meeting all our populations here, and we’re not meeting the needs of all our residents,” she continued.
A “Messaging Toolkit for Vulnerable Populations” released by Mecklenburg County Public Health on Thursday, for example, features FAQs, key messaging and social distancing infographics, but only in English.
Erin Tucker, director of operations with ourBRIDGE, said even when staff members know the information and know what families to get it to, it can be hard to make the connection.
“This information that is coming out that is so vital, especially to these families, is the least accessible to these families,” Tucker said. “So people like me who have the privilege to speak English and have job security right now, I’m getting inundated with all this information that some of our families really need to have access to, but how do I get funding to get this translated into 12 different languages? How will I get the information into the families’ hands when people are turning off their cellphones because they can’t pay their cellphone bill?”
As with so many Charlotte residents, the COVID-19 crisis has led to skyrocketing unemployment in the immigrant community, Ganzó emphasized.
“The jobs are disappearing,” she said. “Most of our families work in cleaning, hospitality, babysitting; all of those are roles that right now are not working.”
She pointed out that, for those Charlotteans who are undocumented, there are no stimulus checks coming. Health insurance coverage is especially low in the immigrant community as well, adding to the anxiety.
Making things worse are reports that landlords are taking advantage of immigrant families who are unaware that N.C. Chief Justice Cheri Beasley has placed a statewide hold on all eviction proceedings during the stay-at-home order.
Tucker said she’s lost track of three families during the crisis already. She recalled how on multiple occasions she and other staff members have gone to deliver food just as they had the day before only to find that a family was suddenly gone and their phone disconnected.
Despite these seemingly overwhelming obstacles, Ganzó and her team continue to stay optimistic as they serve thousands of residents every week, staying in touch with students through virtual learning programs and delivering food and supplies as needed across east Charlotte.
For Ganzó, it’s good just to be doing anything when so many others can’t.
“We’re doing way more than we thought we could possibly do,” she said. “Everybody on staff is working, so I’m super thankful. There’s a lot of moving pieces and we’re just trying to keep up, so I feel like I’m working more now than ever.”
Just when she’s needed more than ever.
For more info about meal distribution or to donate, visit the ourBRIDGE for KIDS Facebook page.