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AmeriCorps Members In Mass. Play 'Uplifting' Essential Roles During Pandemic06:11
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AmeriCorps service member Paloma Suarez carries bags of frozen meals to the entryway of South End Community Health Center for families to pick up. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
AmeriCorps service member Paloma Suarez carries bags of frozen meals to the entryway of South End Community Health Center for families to pick up. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

When people dedicate a year to community service, they're in for challenging work. They might help communities recover from a natural disaster or assist families that live in extreme poverty.

Tens of thousands of people in the federal service program AmeriCorps were giving that kind of hands-on help when they were blindsided by the coronavirus pandemic.

Overnight, many of them became essential workers — doing everything from contact tracing for people who tested positive for the virus, to outreach in the homeless community, to helping build overflow medical facilities, according to an AmeriCorps spokeswoman.

National service has become so critical during the pandemic that some U.S. senators want to expand it. Last month, a bipartisan group of them introduced a bill to quickly double the size of the corps to 150,000 members, and triple it within three years.

'Everybody Needs To Eat'

Twenty-year-old Emily Brown has been doing her AmeriCorps service through FoodCorps, one of the organizations in the national service network that gets funding from the U.S. Corporation for National and Community Service. FoodCorps works in schools to teach kids about healthy eating. Many members are also connected with their communities through a local nonprofit; Brown has been working in Gloucester through the organization Backyard Growers.

This spring, Brown and her Gloucester Public Schools students were getting ready to plant gardens. But when schools had to shut down, she had to pivot; she focused on helping the community get fed. She planted gardens around the city and gave residents soil, compost and seeds to plant their own.

"Which is such an uplifting thing to be able to do during the crisis," Brown said. "Everybody needs to eat, and that self-sustainability and sufficiency is so empowering, especially in times like this when you're isolated."

But FoodCorps service members wanted to make sure they were still connecting with their students. So they got creative; some of them became chefs and teachers on YouTube. Leilani Stacy, who's 23 and recently completed her service year at Blackstone Elementary School in Boston and the city's Office of Food Access, posted videos of herself showing kids how to make healthy dishes.

Twenty-seven-year-old Rebecca Perrin even sang about the nutritious value of different plant parts for her first- and second-graders in Chelsea.

Perrin stepped into a new role as the coronavirus crisis intensified, answering calls at a pandemic hotline in Chelsea and coordinating the distribution of food and supplies. She did her service through a local nonprofit that partners with FoodCorps, Healthy Chelsea.

"Chelsea is already a very food insecure place to begin with. And then ... there were really high rates of infection," Perrin said. "People weren't able to leave their homes to get food ... They just felt stranded."

'It Felt Really Meaningful'

Asked if she felt she had made a difference or that she had left work undone due to the scale of the pandemic, Perrin said that in speaking directly to homebound residents, she really felt her work had made an impact.

"There were a lot of conversations where they would tell me that they were COVID-positive and I would ask them if they were feeling OK, and if we could get them anything besides food," Perrin recalled. "And there were a lot of responses like, 'I have five kids here. I just gave birth to a baby. I really need help, but I'm afraid of the virus. So any assistance that you all can give is much appreciated.' It felt really meaningful."

Like other AmeriCorps members who spoke with WBUR, Perrin's service period just ended. But she's going to continue for a second year in Chelsea.

Ivan Ang is 40 years old and has a master's degree in creative writing. He was tutoring young people at the Boston International Newcomers Academy, a public high school program for immigrants.

"The school is a very, very important community for them," Ang explained. "Without this community, they are feeling even more isolated."

Ivan Ang, second from right, with students in the Writers' Room at Boston International Newcomers Academy. (Courtesy Ivan Ang)
Ivan Ang, second from right, with students in the Writers' Room at Boston International Newcomers Academy. (Courtesy Ivan Ang)

When schooling went online, Ang, who was serving through the local organization 826 Boston, said, he turned his sessions into much more than writing lessons.

"The first five to 15 minutes, I would say, 'You know what? I know we're here to do an assignment or an essay, but we're not going to do that now. I just want to hear how are you feeling and what's on your mind,' " Ang recounted. "They have a lot of concerns ... They keep hearing reports that people who are infected with COVID, people who are in certain neighborhoods, tend to have higher rates of infection. And they want to know why. These are all big questions."

For Ang, pivoting to meet his students' needs also meant addressing their questions about racism and the Black Lives Matter movement.

"I think ... as recent immigrants, there are a lot of things that they're still trying to learn, they struggle to understand," he said.

He recounted an experience in which one of his students, an immigrant from Haiti, expressed concerns after reading a newspaper article about Black males feeling more threatened when they walk around gentrified neighborhoods.

"And his question was very innocent, like, 'Why are they so scared? Like, what is threatening them?' " Ang recalled. "It wasn't a very pleasant conversation, but that conversation really allowed him to understand a lot of things. ... The virtual space allowed for this to happen."

Serving On The Front Lines, In Person

Many service members didn't move into that virtual world when the pandemic hit.

Paloma Suarez, 30, had been creating wellness programs for kids in the pediatric division at the South End Community Health Center in Boston. When the coronavirus started spreading, she felt she should keep working in person at the clinic.

Paloma Suarez and Oliver Diaz assemble bags of frozen meals that will be distributed to families visiting South End Community Health Center. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Paloma Suarez and Oliver Diaz assemble bags of frozen meals that will be distributed to families visiting South End Community Health Center. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

"I was frightened with how it would affect our whole community," Suarez explained. "I was distraught by the thought of food insecurity and high unemployment."

Suarez, who has a master's degree in public health and did her service through the AmeriCorps partner organization Social Capital, Inc., called and screened 70% of the health center's patients to determine their needs — and helped fill those needs.

She arranged for the distribution of frozen meals, and loaded hundreds of them into her car at the nonprofit Commonwealth Kitchen every week to bring them to the health center.

A woman visiting South End Community Health Center picks up two bags of frozen dinners for her family. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A woman visiting South End Community Health Center picks up two bags of frozen dinners for her family. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

She also worked to make the clinic a distribution site for the city's massive pandemic-response fresh meals program. She set up appointments for families to pick up food and other items they needed, including diapers.

"During these in-person conversations with our patients, I was able to see people crying, which ... broke my heart," Suarez reflected. "The way they expressed their gratitude towards us and towards the health center, and to the whole front line workers, was something incredible."

This segment aired on July 15, 2020.

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