Last spring, as the COVID pandemic was just beginning its onslaught, Pawtucket native Maria Marin packed a bag and moved home when her North Carolina college closed, just like thousands of college students across the country. A political science major who volunteered with people experiencing homelessness, Marin knew she wanted to stay involved in community outreach, and she saw a profound need in her home communities.
“I’ve seen an overwhelming amount of sickness here. Pawtucket and Central Falls are very tight-knit communities and you hear all the joys and all the sadness,” said Marin. “There has been a lot of grief among the population – it’s been very hard.”
In fact, Central Falls has had some of the highest case-positivity rates for COVID-19 in the nation. During the height of the spring surge, the test positivity rate was well over 30% in some pockets of the community. Population density, multi-generational living and widespread poverty was seen as drivers of community spread, while most of the residents, many of whom are considered essential workers, were not able to work from home or otherwise shelter during the pandemic.
Marin signed up with the YMCA’s youth program to help address the crisis in the communities. The YMCA, as did many of the non-profit organizations here, became the emergency response arms and legs for neighbors in need. The YMCA deployed block-level resources as daily infection data was updated. They distributed information about how and where to get tested, symptoms, and provided resources for quarantining. The team even tried to dispel fears that testing was tied to immigration or insurance status.
The YMCA is part of the Pawtucket and Central Falls Health Equity Zone (PCF HEZ), an initiative pioneered by the Rhode Island Department of Health that teams up local leaders, non-profits and residents to work together to improve the social determinants of health in their neighborhoods. Rather than a top-down approach to solving local issues, this placed-based, community-led initiative relies on local experts to identify needs and then create a collaborative network of partners to address those issues.
Rhode Island has ten Health Equity Zones that are each managed by a backbone agency that facilitates communication among the collaborative partners, provides program support, and accesses funding for hyper-local initiatives. The Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) Rhode Island serves as that backbone for Pawtucket-Central Falls Health Equity Zone, providing program management for this zone, which represents one of the more underserved areas in the state. During the COVID-19 pandemic, those local leaders became even more critical.
“It was all hands on deck,” said Andrew Pierson, director of Real Estate Development at Pawtucket Central Falls Development (PCFD), a non-profit community development corporation engaged in affordable housing development. “We were watching our community get devastated.”
The staff at PCFD had to pivot immediately and responded by collecting food through food drives, packing up the contributions from restaurants, and getting supplies to the families in need.
“We saw what the pandemic could do to low-income families who were still working. The impact was monumental,” said Pierson. “We manage 260 rental apartments. Typically, we have better than 90% of those residents paying their rent in full and on time. But, as the pandemic dragged on, their hours were cut or eliminated and food prices started to soar, so our tenants were having to make choices between food and rent. We had families with young kids who weren’t getting anything to eat.”
As critical as supplying food to residents was supplying up-to-date information about pop-up testing locations and how to manage if you are exposed. And community members and small businesses stepped up to help get the word out. Collette Travel, a national travel and tour operator based in Pawtucket, repurposed its call center to staff a COVID hot line that became a hub for information and resources. Collette operators acted as the conduit between residents and the YMCA Street Teams providing resources for residents.
To keep residents in the know about frequent changes for mobile testing centers and the availability and location of food pantries and quarantining resources, Street Team volunteers posted flyers at bus stations and left brochures on doorknobs. Ensuring materials were culturally appropriate and translated into one of the ten languages spoken in Central Falls helped ensure residents could trust the information.
“We knew there was a lot of confusion about COVID-19 in general,” said Charles Clifford, CEO of the YMCA in Pawtucket. “We wanted to continue the messaging from trusted sources. We needed local voices to speak to the local community.”
As intergenerational families became ill and urban blocks of multifamily housing became hotspots, fear and confusion grew. Communications about COVID prevention, public safety measures and information about vaccines needed to come from local leaders and community members. Locations of testing sites and distribution of masks and PPE became a focus. LISC Rhode Island worked with partners to distribute more than a half-million masks in Central Falls and Pawtucket.
Outgoing Mayor James Diossa and newly elected Central Falls Mayor Maria Rivera were both visible and vocal proponents of masking. Mayor Rivera worked with collaborative members like the Elisha Project, a hunger relief non-profit, to distribute food boxes and PPE to residents, and promoted community-wide testing and masking. Hearing local leaders talking about masks, and passing them out to the community was a help.
“Numbers were going down elsewhere in Rhode Island, but our community spread was still very high over the summer,” said Jim Logan, the LISC Program Officer working to help manage the PCF HEZ collaborative of partner agencies. “We knew we were still a long way from the finish line. While the Street Teams were doing terrific work, there was still a lot of hesitancy about what information to trust, how important the CDC guidelines were, whether to take the vaccines when they were available – even how important it was to wear masks. Distributing the masks was one thing, but residents needed to wear them.”
As the backbone agency, LISC regularly conducts listening sessions to determine community priorities. These regular check-ins gauge demands and progress, and ensure the program is resident-led. In 2019, the LISC team conducted 600 hours of community town hall meetings, listening sessions and focus groups to update the action plan. From that assessment, youth engagement rose to the surface as a key issue. Since then, several targeted programs have been introduced ranging from an opioid awareness program, intergenerational farmers market, storytelling and cooking programs, and entrepreneurship partnerships.
To further the youth engagement goal and to raise local voices, LISC offered a grant program to engage youth to create communications tools to encourage mask wearing. Pawtucket Central Falls Development worked with local elementary and high school students to come up with a poster to be used on a bus shelter and on busses with routes through the community.
“The art we chose showed a woman poised like a superhero standing up against the virus. The mask was a key component of her armor,” said Pierson. “Family ties are strong in Pawtucket and Central Falls, and youth art was the perfect way to raise local awareness. All of the submissions were full of imagery and emotion.”
PCFD chose an image by 16-year-old Camille Rodriguez, a Blackstone Academy Charter School sophomore. Rodriguez is a passionate artist who wants to use her skills to make positive changes in her community. The grant from LISC provided a small stipend for the artist and funding for the bus shelter campaign.
“Camille was so excited when she heard she won,” said Marin, who in her role at the YMCA has been working with the local youth artists. “She’s been super kind throughout this process.” Marin helped Rodriguez to modify the artwork for the bus shelter and to accommodate the format for the back end of the busses.
The Outdoor Media Agency, VECTOR Media Holding Corp., was impressed by Rodriguez’s art and donated an additional month to the program, and Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) donated four bus tails.
The campaign, set to start in March and run for two months, will be provide a constant reminder that one of the most basic protections residents have is to wear a mask. As the vaccine rollout gains momentum and many feel there is reason for hope, it is still important to protect the community and stay masked.
“After 2020, it is clear that COVID doesn’t affect every population equally,” said Logan. “We have a deeper understanding that there are a lot of families that are disproportionately affected by the disease. There is a large percentage of the population who are working in front line jobs and don’t have the luxury of working remotely.”
Because the community was so hard hit, the state prioritized Central Falls in the first phase of the vaccine rollout. Central Falls Mayor Maria Rivera, who sits on the Governor’s COVID Advisory Board, has been a strong advocate for getting her city vaccinated first, and is beginning to see the benefits. Central Falls has seen a 71% drop in the number of cases per capita, and positive COVID test rates have fallen from 22% to 5% of those tested. These encouraging results have come just after 20% of the city’s population has been vaccinated and more vaccine clinics are on the horizon.
While many are feeling a growing sense of hope, it’s still important to continue masking and hand washing. The team is helping to schedule vaccine appointments and to overcome new hurdles that come with that. As more residents get vaccinated, families who have lost so much are able to reconnect with their community and begin the process of recovering from the loss.
“How do you console people through the suffering when you can’t give them a warm embrace,” said Maria Marin. “My soul has gone through grief in my own family, and for me the most reassuring thing has been a hug. Until now, we haven’t been able to do even that.”