My name is Yuselly Mendoza, and I serve as a community health worker (CHW) and team member at ONE Neighborhood Builders (ONE|NB). Prior to taking on this role, I was the captain for the Walking School Bus at the William D’Abate Elementary School in Olneyville, managing a key partnership between the school and ONE|NB. When I saw the opening for the CHW position, I realized that it was an opportunity to give back to my community and deepen and develop new relationships of trust and support with my neighbors. I applied and was happy to be chosen for and accept the role—which is as much (if not more) a calling than it is just a job.
I was born and raised in Olneyville and currently live in my childhood home. Nearly 30 years ago, my parents emigrated from Guatemala with hopes of giving their children more promising futures. For my parents, my graduation from Rhode Island College was their proudest moment. As a first-generation college student, I knew the power of education and the significance of breaking the cycle of poverty for future generations, especially my five nephews and nieces. To be honest, my career goals did not include staying in Providence. I envisioned myself living in the Boston area, conquering a whole new city. However, life had a different plan for my family and me. The day I had a second job interview scheduled in Boston was the day I received the heaviest news that any child can could receive. In late January 2019, my father passed away. As you might imagine, my whole world drastically shifted. My father’s absence required me to step into the role of new head of our household.
I share a piece of my personal story because I recognize the value of sharing my struggles in my own work as a CHW to demonstrate empathy and relatability. Working directly with residents, they begin to gradually share similar struggles and barriers. My job is not about collecting data and checking off boxes: I strongly believe that it is about connecting with my neighbors to support their goals, however big or small they might be. True, my role mainly consists of referring services according to their social and health needs (i.e., social determinants of health or SDOH’s). As a community member who lives in the neighborhood, speaks their language and shares their ethnicity, and has overcome comparable obstacles to the ones they face, it makes it easier for me to make those essential strong connections.
During these very challenging times, many community members are facing what they call “a scary and unpredictable year.” As the unemployment rates and COVID cases began to drastically increase, I witnessed the immediate need of CHW support in the neighborhood. The first few weeks, families requested help with food accessibility. Many were referred to the Olneyville Food Pantry. Some visited for the first time, others returned after 10 years away. After following up with these residents, 80% felt more secure in feeding their families. Unfortunately, this does not solve all their worries.
Based on the Social Determinants of Health (SDOH) Screening conducted between the resident and the CHW, the most common main concern shared was financial assistance. Today, some families continue to wait for their unemployment to kick in, few are unable to return due to a lack of childcare, and many have contracted Covid-19, which has led to many physical and financial complications. This is why we are currently focused on providing neighbors with impacted by Covid-19 with immediate financial relief through direct cash assistance in addition to our ongoing wraparound services.
With the support of a $45,000 grant from the United Way of Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Foundation, ONE Neighborhood Builders created a Covid-19 Relief Fund, offering money to support families in the 02909, 02908, and 02907 zip codes. As of early June, we distributed more than $27,000 to 122 families through a streamlined application process. 90% of these families used the funds to cover part of past due bills and rent.
A population that has been especially hard-hit by this crisis are those who are undocumented. Roughly half of the families with whom I work are undocumented—and among the most underserved populations in the state. My client and her husband are just one of my examples of families who are unable to access government relief benefits and services. Both parents were laid off from the Providence Mexican restaurant where they worked . They have two young children and fear the worst with good reason—including the very real possibility of losing their home—since they will are unable to pay their rent. The resources for the undocumented community are unfortunately very limited, and we we are working to provide as much assistance as we can.
With the current state of our nation and, specifically, our own city of Providence, we see the immediate need to connect community members to appropriate social and healthcare services. We are happy to announce that with support from the Rhode Island Department of Health, we will be expanding our community health worker cohort to address needs across various neighborhoods that have been heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. We are confident that with this expansion we will be able not only address immediate needs of our communities – but also work towards addressing systemic changes that will eliminate the health disparities that we are constantly seeing today.
We will share more about this exciting news soon! It is comforting and encouraging to be able to share a ray of light at such a difficult moment.