Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, members of the High Country’s Hispanic/Latino community have been fighting through possible language barriers, financial struggles and public health concerns while trying to find ways to provide for their families.

Several local organizations have come together in the last year to ensure that the local Hispanic/Latino community had resources to withstand the struggle of the pandemic.

Yolanda Adams serves as the family resource coordinator at Watauga County Schools, and often is a liaison between the Hispanic/Latino families and community agencies. According to Adams, roughly 4 percent of Watauga County’s population is Hispanic/Latino. She said she typically helps with approximately 185 families or so in the county.

Most of the men in the Hispanic/Latino community work in construction, landscaping or are carpenters; women in the families were impacted heavily during the pandemic as many of them work in local restaurants and hotels — business sectors that struggled to keep people employed due to COVID-19.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Adams said she began calling families and inquiring if they were doing OK, if they had enough food and if their expenses were covered. Needs started to rise as those in the Hispanic/Latino community started losing jobs while the pandemic set in, and some Watauga families even became sick with COVID-19.

Sarah Donovan, co-chair of the Immigrant Justice Coalition, said the IJC has collected and distributed about $28,000 through its COVID-19 mutual aid fund for Hispanic/Latino families in the High Country area.

“Our immigrant neighbors don’t qualify for a lot of government programs (such as stimulus checks). Even those who are documented immigrants often don’t qualify for those things,” Donovan said.

Some community members decided to donate some or all of the funds they received from the U.S. stimulus check to the to the IJC. The organization then distributed the funds to immigration-affected families in the community to cover basic expenses such as rent, electric bills and internet so that school-aged children could attend school virtually. Donovan said IJC has responded to approximately 75 requests; some of which were repeat requests.

Adams said she began disseminating COVID-19 information in Spanish to families via the Q’Pasa Appalachia Facebook page. Because some struggle with a language barrier, it could be frustrating for families to ensure they were receiving the correct information unless it came from someone who could explain in their native language.

High Country Community Health — serving Avery, Burke and Watauga counties — started sharing important COVID-19 information in Spanish on its website to ensure Hispanic/Latino communities stayed informed. Alex Noriega, HCCH’s outreach and enrollment specialist, said their staff began printing out information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to share with Hispanic/Latino families in order to make sure they received accurate information.

HCCH CEO Alice Salthouse explained that the agency receives federal funding, of which 25 percent of the funds received are dedicated to the High Country migrant farm worker population. Many of the migrant farm workers come to the High Country on a H-2A visa in order to work to financially provide for their families in their home countries, Salthouse said.

Noriega said in December 2020, farm workers — who were in the area to assist with the Christmas tree season — began preparing to go back to their country of origin. They were required to provide a negative COVID-19 test 72 hours before boarding a plane. A group of six men were unable to leave because one tested positive the day before the group was supposed to travel home. HCCH and IJC both sprung into action to help the group of men.

According to Noriega, IJC helped fund to get the plane tickets rescheduled, HCCH gathered food for the men and the grower the group previously worked for allowed them to stay while they quarantined.

“Different organizations in the community came together to help them out. It was amazing,” Noriega said. “When they got back home, they were texting us letting us know how grateful they were and that nobody had ever done anything like that for them. It was heart touching.”

The men were able to make it to their home country a few days before Christmas.

“We try to do everything we can to help them because most of the time they feel left out, and they don’t have anyone to contact,” said Derrick Vela, HCCH’s farm worker health coordinator.

Vela recalled witnessing his parents go through the struggle of a language barrier or lack of transportation and resources due to being immigrants. He said HCCH wants the community to feel like they can count on the agency’s staff. Even if it’s an issue not related to health care, HCCH can help find resources, he said.

HCCH has provided COVID-19 vaccine clinics in both Avery and Watauga counties, some with extra efforts to assist the migrant farm worker communities. Mobile vaccine clinics were deployed in Avery to reach migrant farm workers to ensure they had the chance to get vaccinated. Toward the beginning of March, Adams was meeting with AppHealthCare Health Director Jennifer Greene to coordinate ways to educate the Hispanic/Latino about the vaccine to ensure accurate information was being spread.

According to the CDC, the U.S. federal government is providing the vaccine free to all people living in the United States, regardless of their immigration or health insurance status. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security stated that “it is a moral and public health imperative” to ensure that all individuals residing in the U.S. have access to the vaccine, and that all individuals were encouraged to receive the vaccine regardless of immigration status.

“When we talk about a pandemic, we have to take any racial, immigration or any kind of status aside,” Adams said. “This is something that attacked the whole entire world. We need to put that label aside and provide for those needs for the human beings that we are. We’re all in the same boat.”

Donovan gave similar sentiments by saying that the community isn’t healthy until “we’re all healthy, and we all have access to the health care that we need, education and having our basic needs met.”

Through it all, both Adams and Donovan said the Hispanic/Latino community has remained resilient during the last year.

“Our community has come together,” Adams said. “In a way it has given me so much pride to be able to serve them and be able to be part of their community. The resilience has been amazing. Even though it has been a hard time for me, at the same time it has been very satisfying to help.”

Information about High Country Community Health can be found at www.highcountrycommunityhealth.com. For information about resources and events in the High Country for the Hispanic/Latino community, visit www.facebook.com/quepasaappalachia. Inquires to the Immigrant Justice Coalition involving the immigrant affected community can be sent to ijcboonenc@gmail.com.

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