â€œCivics is a hallmark of the work that we do here at the (CWECSEO) commission,â€� said Steven Hernandez, an attorney who serves as the executive director of the Commission on Women, children, seniors, equity and opportunity (CWCSEO) at the Connecticut General Assembly.
The CWCSEO researches best practices, coordinates stakeholders, and promotes public policies that are in the interests of Connecticut’s underserved and underrepresented families, women, children, and older adults. â€œWhen you think of a government agency, you may think, you know, how is it that this agency represents the people of the state, either in government or among state actors, but this agency is a little different. Thereâ€™s a people-facing component to what we doâ€�, said Hernandez.
One of the initiatives is the Parent Leadership Training Insitute, otherwise known as the PLTI. The PLTI is a program in which families are trained over the course of almost twenty-five weeks on how to be engaged in democracy and become more active in their community while also developing skills needed for civic leadership.
A factor within the PLTI is called the Childrenâ€™s Leadership Training Institute, an element that Hernandez is passionate about. â€œWhat we teach is that children are leaders today. They’re not just leaders of tomorrow; they are engaged in their own civic spaces: their school, their families, their communities.â€� Hernandez stresses the importance of civic engagement in all its forms, from creating accessible places for young people to learning to run for office.
Steven Hernandez also shared the importance of family and community. Hernandez comes from a family of immigrants, his great grandparents on his fatherâ€™s matrilineal side having immigrated to Chicago from Italy, later moving to Veracruz until the Mexican revolution, where they then settled in Tampico and Monterrey, where they reside to this day. His motherâ€™s sideâ€”as well as his fatherâ€™s patrilineal sideâ€” is Mexican, dating back multiple generations. As proud as Hernandez is of his ancestry, heâ€™s proud to call Connecticut home too. â€œThis country belongs to each and every one of you as much as it does to anyone else,â€� says Hernandez. â€œEven though it doesn’t seem like it sometimes from what we may hear in the media and what we may hear otherwise, at least in our little version of democracy that is Connecticut, this is your home, too. And you have the right to engage all of the resources so that you can improve your own life and the lives of your family.â€�
Welcome to another episode of Connecticut Latino News Opinion+, where we talk about major issues local Latinx and underrepresented communities face.
This week we spoke with Dawn La Valle, Director of the Division of Library Development for the Connecticut State Library.Â
â€œWe basically help and support our libraries to enhance their services that they provide to the community,â€� La Valle explained. The Division of Library Development offers all academic, public school, and special libraries a wide variety of funding, education, and leadership services.Â
â€œDigital Equity is about everyone having access, everyone being able to use a device to do their homework, to do their work,â€� she said. â€œThe work that weâ€™re doing with these libraries and educating communities is that the libraries are a wonderful place to go, many libraries offer devices, many libraries offer digital literacy classes.â€�
Everyone is invited to Digital Inclusion Week, which will take place from October 3 – 7. The CT Libraries & Partners for Digital Equity have planned a full range of activities to showcase their efforts this past year and engage with residents. American Library Association Executive Director Tracie Hall, who has worked within digital equity for decades, will be featured as a keynote speaker.Â
â€œWe are going to highlight the work, the data, and the outcomes from the four libraries that received funding for digital navigator pilot projects,â€� La Valle said. â€œWeâ€™re going to hear from the digital navigators that have been working with these communities and allow them to tell their storiesâ€¦telling the story of how this has impacted their lives [and] how this has impacted the communities.
For more information about equity and educational efforts by the CT State Libraryâ€™s Division of Library Development, be sure to watch this full episode of Connecticut Latino News Opinion+.
â€œItâ€™s so important for people in our communities to know that if they have a question, if they need accessibility if they need to learn to use a deviceâ€”go to your library. We can help you,â€� La Valle said.Â
CTLN founders Diane Alverio and Donna Elkinson-Miller first envisioned an inclusive media outlet dedicated to English-speaking Latino residents across Connecticut in July of 2012.Â
10 years later, the flagship site has grown into a trusted and reliable network of five local media outlets that serve diverse Latino communities across New England and the Midwest.
â€œThere was no significant coverage of Latinos and Latino issues in CT,â€� Alverio said. â€œWhen there was any coverage by the mainstream press, it was extremely limited and at times stereotypical.â€�
Alverio has been locally recognized by the Hartford Club, the City of Hartford, Progresso Latino Fund of the Community Foundation of Greater Hartford, the Connecticut Hispanic Bar Association, and more for her work through civic organizationsâ€”including CTLN. She is also been the principal and owner of D.Alverio & Co.
Elkinson-Miller had started Elkinson-Miller Marketing LLC in 2012, after building a successful career within marketing and advertising with over a decade of experience, when Alverio approached her with the idea of CTLN.
â€œI immediately realized the importance of her vision,â€� Elkinson-Miller said. â€œMy mother is first-generation in the U.S. from Croatia, and I recall her stories about her arrival [about] learning English, going to a new school in a new country, etc. She lived with relatives, so she had guidance. Today, navigating the available support systems is much more complicated!â€�Â
There were a few initial challenges occasionally, including funding and finding interns, but mostly convincing advertisers that Latino residents could be reached in English through culturally competent media.
However, Elkinson-Miller said there was a quick learning curve, and with the support of professional contacts and their own families, the publication soon became successful and well-received among a variety of local communities.Â
â€œWithin a year, we were nationally recognized and received a McCormick Foundation award to expand to Massachusetts and Rhode Island,â€� Alverio said. â€œI am thrilled Hugo Balta has continued to expand Latino News Network.â€�
Alverio and Elkinson-Miller always planned to expand CTLNâ€™s statewide coverage and Hispanic-Latino editorial focus to other parts of New England with significant Latino populations.
Current CTLN Owners Adriana and Hugo Balta acquired the publication in 2019, with immediate plans to rebrand and expand the outletâ€™s work.
â€œI drew from what she (Diane Alverio) had learned and built on it in Connecticut, and New England, and now the Midwest,â€� Balta said. There are alarming news deserts, no matter the size of the market, when it comes to serving the U.S. born, English language first, Hispanics-Latinos.â€�
CTLN Publisher Hugo Balta first heard about the publication in 2012 when Alverio shared her vision for the outlet with him. Balta found her response to the lack of inclusion of Latino communities in English language legacy media innovative.
â€œAs a veteran journalist, I was frustrated at the excuses given by the homogeneous news managers for the systemic problems resulting in the one-dimensional negative, biased narratives of Latinos across all platforms,â€� Balta said. â€œCTLN afforded me the opportunity to stop asking for a seat at the table figuratively, and by collaborating with othersâ€”not just build our own seats, but our own tables.â€�
Advocating for the fair and accurate treatment of Latinos in newsrooms and news coverage is familiar work for Balta and Alverio. They are both past presidents of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ).
CTLN General Sales Manager Adriana said it has been exciting to be a part of an initiative that is focused on best serving local Latino communities. Her work seeks to build bridges between people and businesses looking to understand the Latino population better and leverage their power.
â€œLatinos are driving the population, cultural, political, and economic growth of the U.S.,â€� she said. â€œWe, at Connecticut Latino News (CTLN), and the other affiliates under the Latino News Network (LNN) work in exploring opportunities to inform, educate, and empower the community.â€�
Latino News Network expanded to New Hampshire (NHLN), Massachusetts (MALN) in 2020, and Rhode Island (RHLN) and Illinois (ILLN) in 2021, with plans of extending to Wisconsin this year.
The network has built on the success of its founders. In 2021, the Solutions Journalism Network (SJN) chose LNN as one of 10 U.S. newsrooms to work on the Advancing Democracy project. CTLN evaluated barriers Latinos in the state have to the democratic process, as well as ways those problems are being addressed.
This year the Solutions Journalism Network (SJN) and Hearkenchose LNN to participate in Democracy SOS, a nine-month fellowship supporting reporters and editors in significantly strengthening journalismâ€™s role in advancing our democracy through innovative approaches that build civic engagement, equity, and healthy discourse.
This month, the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism announced it had selected 26 journalists to participate in its 2022 National Fellowship to investigate and explore challenges impacting child, youth, and family health and well-being in the United States. Annabel Rocha, Editor for Latino News Network â€“ Midwest and Writer for Illinois Latino News (ILLN), is among them. For her project, Rocha will be exploring Period Poverty. Period Poverty or Menstrual Poverty is defined as the lack of access to menstrual products, education, hygiene facilities, and/or waste management.Â
â€œTen years later, and I deeply believe, CTLN and the other media sites through Latino News Network are needed more than ever,â€� Alverio said. â€œYou just have to look at the polarization in this country and the attempted coverage by the media of what are clearly two realities. Latinos and our stories can not be lost in the chaos.â€�
About Connecticut Latino News (CTLN)
Founded in July of 2012, CTLN is the flagship news and information, multi-platform, digital outlet of the Latino News Network. CTLN is the first English language news publication in Connecticut solely dedicated to serving Hispanics-Latinos.
The Latino News Network (LNN) oversees an independent group of local news and information, English language, and digital outlets with a statewide, Hispanic-Latino community editorial focus in Illinois, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire.
LNNâ€™s mission is to provide greater visibility and voice to the Hispanic-Latino community, amplify the work of others doing the same, develop competencies of journalists, and produce investigative reporting based on the principles of solutions journalism.
LNN is owned by Balta Enterprises, LLC.
Please support the work of Connecticut Latino News and the Latino News Network by becoming a member or making a donation:I SUPPORT CTLN!
On a bustling Friday morning, the aroma of rice and beans wafts through a cloud of hairspray in Romyâ€™s Beauty Salon in Meriden. Merengue music soothes the senses. Customers exchange pleasantries in Spanish as Romy Norwood offers each a small bowl of â€œarroz y habichuela,â€� the Dominican staple of rice and beans. Later in the day, Norwood repeats the courtesy with small mugs of strong coffee, â€œcafecito,â€� prepared by her mother, Yolanda Sosa, in the kitchenette in the rear of the shop. Unlike Norwood and her mother, most clients arenâ€™t wearing a mask.
Neither Norwood nor anyone in her immediate family has been infected with COVID-19. Norwood, 46, and her husband, Jeffrey Norwood, 65, live in Cheshire with their children Jennifer, 14, and Ramon, 12, and their dog, Zeus. Since the start of the pandemic, Norwood says, they have been vigilant about wearing masks, social distancing and getting tested and vaccinated. Two beloved aunts succumbed to COVID in the Dominican Republic, where Norwood grew up, but everyone else in her family has remained healthy, including 73-year-old Sosa, who splits time between Norwoodâ€™s Cheshire home and her own home in the Dominican Republic.
By all accounts, Norwood and her loved ones appear to have dodged the most severe health outcomes of COVID. This is especially good news for the Norwoods since Black and Hispanic families have been disproportionately impacted by the virus in health outcomes and as small-business owners. According to a report by the U.S. Small Business Association, the total number of people who were self-employed and working declined by 20.2% between April 2019 and April 2020. Hispanic people experienced a more significant decline, at 26%. The biggest declines were experienced among Asian and Black people, with 37.1% for Asians and 37.6% for Blacks.
Norwoodâ€™s beauty salon was shuttered for almost six months during the pandemic. â€œI didnâ€™t have an emergency plan,â€� Norwood says in Spanish. Some clients died of COVID, and others simply have not returned to her salon. She decided to forgo a federal PPP loan and incurred credit card debt. She estimates her business has returned to 75% of its pre-pandemic performance.
â€œOne way or another, COVID will get you,â€� Norwood says about the mental fatigue her family has experienced. She says hypervigilance, anxiety and fear have crept in, replacing many of the happy feelings they had when they settled in Connecticut. The disease has taken an emotional toll on the family. They have been uninfected yet greatly affected by COVID.
Seeking Refuge From COVID
While taking a leisurely Sunday drive through Meriden in 2006, Norwood was attracted to the cityâ€™s quiet beauty and spirit. There were Black and brown people like her and Jeffrey. Spanish was spoken in bodegas. At the time, the couple was living and working in West Haven after having met in The Bronx. Norwood also liked that Meriden was far enough away from West Haven that she would not work in direct competition with her former beauty salon employer. So, she and Jeffrey, a physician at the West Haven VA Medical Center, moved to Meriden, and she opened Romyâ€™s Beauty Salon on West Main Street. They lived in the upstairs apartment. In 2007, they were married in Jamao al Norte, Norwoodâ€™s hometown in the fertile Cibao region of the Dominican Republic.
In Meriden, Norwood established a loyal clientele, and the couple started their family. Business was good. They became parishioners at Saint Rose of Lima Catholic Church, where today Norwood serves as a eucharistic minister and a leader on the parish council. As Jennifer and Ramon grew up, the family began to vacation two or three times a yearâ€”the Bahamas, Mexico, Italy, Punta Cana. They went on cruises.
On March 21, 2020, the Norwoods flew to the Turks and Caicos Islands to seek refuge from the global pandemic. Looking over their shoulders on the flight from Bradley International Airport, they realized they were the only passengers on the plane, Norwood says. When they arrived at Providenciales, Norwood recalls, tourists were scrambling to leave the island. The last flight to the United States departed shortly after their arrival. They initially embraced the lockdown in their hotel room, thinking they would weather the hype and fly home to normalcy.
Then all flights were grounded in Turks and Caicos. A curfew was imposed. They were permitted outdoors for one hour a day. Groceries at the local supermarket were rationed. Food quickly became a scarce resource. Leftovers, Norwood says, became the dreaded meal of the day. They were stuck, marooned on a tropical island, and werenâ€™t even allowed to swim.
Then the hotel manager demanded $10,000 a week from Jeffrey Norwood to remain in their room beyond their original reservation. So, they found an online rental, bought linens and rid the house of cockroaches. It was a mess, Norwood says. They hunkered down.
Their only outside contact was Zeus, a scroungy, flea-infested watchdog.
At first, the family didnâ€™t have much to do with the spotted pit bull-dalmatian mix. They kept their distance. â€œCould he transmit the virus?â€� Norwood recalls thinking at the time, given the widespread uncertainty about COVID. Zeus was always hungry and thirsty. He scratched at their front door at night. Later they would learn he had been whipped with sticks and left outdoors during hurricanes.
Then one day, Zeus joined the family on a walk during their one hour outdoors. When he was grazed and injured by a passing vehicle and began yelping, recalls Norwood, they decided to allow him into the house to clean him up and help him heal. Thus began the process of adopting Zeus.
The Norwoods spent a month on the island before Jeffrey chartered a private jet from Miami to fly his family home to Connecticut on April 17, 2020. They submitted the paperwork for Zeus. A month later, Jeffrey drove to Miami, picked up Zeus and returned to Cheshire.
â€œI believe Zeus is an angel,â€� says Norwood, her eyes sparkling, as she recounts how the Turks and Caicos misadventure represents both the best and worst of their pandemic experiences. â€œGod sent him to care for and protect us,â€� she says. Today, she says, â€œZeus is king of the house. He has three beds, all the food he wants,â€� adding that he adores her mom.
â€˜Up To Here With COVIDâ€™
COVID has affected the Norwood family in myriad ways.
â€œWeâ€™re without life,â€� Norwood says in Spanish while taking a break between clients at her salon. No more family movie nights with popcorn, she says. No vacations. No romantic getaways. No games. No fun.
There have been a few weekend trips to New Hampshire, where they rent a house, but they take their food and sequester, Norwood says. The kids donâ€™t want to go back to New Hampshire, she says, because they arenâ€™t allowed to leave the house. â€œIâ€™m up to here with COVID,â€� says Norwood. â€œI donâ€™t want to hear anything else about COVID.â€�
She says her momâ€™s help at home and in the salon has been unconditional. After the debacle on Turks and Caicos, Norwood described how she would come home from the salon, strip down in a separate area and shower. Her momâ€™s Dominican cooking was always waiting for her. â€œMy mother is everything to me,â€� she says.
Her husband is fearful of getting COVID. Norwood says her husband doesnâ€™t talk about what he has experienced as a physician on the front lines. He still wears two masks and goggles or a shield, whether heâ€™s getting gas or going to a Mets game, Norwood says. In 2018, the couple relocated to Cheshire for its schools. When they returned to school, Jennifer and Ramon had fallen behind. Norwood says Jennifer has become less sociable and more of a homebody. She avoids crowds lest she be exposed to the virus. She has been bullied at school, where classmates have ridiculed her hair and body type. Her children have become anxious, Norwood says.
During the spike in infections last December, Norwood decided to keep Ramon home from school until the end of February, when he turned 12 and was eligible for the adult vaccine. She felt the higher dosage would be more protective and worth the wait. However, school officials hounded Norwood about Ramonâ€™s absence. She suspects online instruction is purposely inferior to persuade parents to return their children to school.
â€œTengo temor porque el COVID es impredecible,â€� Norwood says in Spanish. â€œIâ€™m fearful because COVID is unpredictable.â€� It may not affect you at all or it may send you to the hospital, she says. She fears for her children and her elderly mother. With all of her precautions, clients still sneeze while touching their hair, face and shoulders, she says. Many have later called to inform her that theyâ€™ve tested positive. Jeffrey prefers that she close the salon and not work, she says.
â€œI got the works,â€� says longtime customer Jeannette Solano, 53, of Meriden, about getting her hair washed, colored and beautified by Norwood on a recent Saturday afternoon. For Solano, the salon experience is a reprieve from the daily grind of the pandemic. â€œEstaba muy triste,â€� she says in Spanish, â€œI was very sadâ€� about Norwood salonâ€™s hiatus in 2020. Describing Norwood as friendly, humble and fun to be around, she says she stops in once a month. â€œRomy does it right,â€� she says, explaining how a hairdresser recently damaged her hair during a visit home to the Dominican Republic. Solano has received two doses of the Moderna vaccine, she says.
During an afternoon lull at the salon, the air conditioner quits. Norwood sits down and asks Sosa to wash her hair. A few minutes later, Norwoodâ€™s back on her feet. At the end of her 10-hour shift, the salon is quiet. Norwood sits beneath a hair dryer, elevates her bare feet and closes her eyes for 20 minutes. â€œI need this,â€� she says.
In July, Norwood, her children and her mother plan to vacation for three weeks in her â€œpueblo Dominicano,â€� Jamao al Norte. Jeffrey is not going, she says. â€œI miss my life before COVID. I miss the freedom. The river, the food, the people, the beach,â€� says Norwood during a break between clients. â€œI canâ€™t wait.â€�
Cover Photo: Jennifer Rodriguez, 27, of Meriden, gets a â€œkeratinaâ€� – which in Spanish means a straightening – by Romy Norwood. From left under hairdryer is Melissa Hernandez, of Middletown; Romyâ€™s mother Yolanda Sosa; Rodriguez; and Norwood.
Welcome to another episode of Connecticut Latino News Opinion+, where we talk about major issues the Latinx and underrepresented communities face in the community.
This week we spoke with Nandini Natarajan, CEO of the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority (CHFA), about the importance and status of affordable housing across the state.Â
The CHFA has been dedicated to alleviating the shortage of affordable housing for low to moderate-income households throughout Connecticut since 1969, working alongside the governor and the Department of Housing.
â€œWe believe that all low and moderate-income families and residents should have a range of choices where they can live affordably in safe quality housing and environmentally stable and economically healthy communities,â€� Natarajan said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has emphasized all the different roles our homes can have in everyday life, Natarajan explained. Peopleâ€™s homes have become part-time remote classrooms, workspaces, and clinics for the past two years.
â€œHome is not just four wallsâ€“itâ€™s more than four walls, itâ€™s more than a roof, itâ€™s more than an investment,â€� she said. â€œItâ€™s really our sanctuary, itâ€™s our refuge.â€�
Connecticut Public Libraries seek to address the growing digital divide between the stateâ€™s diverse communities through its CT Libraries & Partners for Digital Equity initiative, which participated in a series of Juneteenth events last month.
The CT Libraries & Partners for Digital Equity Coalition oversees the new initiative that aims to provide computers, affordable high-speed broadband, and community digital navigators to local communities. Public Library staff and other community members formed the Coalition in January 2020 as a team dedicated to closing the drastic gap in digital access across Connecticut.
â€œThere are still families at home who donâ€™t have internet access, who do not have a device, and who do not know how to use it,â€� said Dawn LaValle, Director of the Division of Library Development for the CT State Library. â€œSo, the pandemic really shined a light on this problem and weâ€™re just realizing the expanse of it.â€�
The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly amplified the lack of digital access among local BIPOC communities, specifically among Black and Latino households. LaValle explained that CT Public Libraries have been aware of a digital gap between CTâ€™s diverse communities but most did not recognize the gapâ€™s full extent until 2020.
About 31 percent of Black residents donâ€™t have computer access at home, while 34 percent of Black residents and 35 percent of Latinx residents lack wireline broadband at home, according to a 2020 Digital Divide in CT report. Data also showed that senior citizens, low-income households, and residents with disabilities are disproportionately affected by digital inequity.
The Digital Equity Coalition saw Juneteeth as an opportunity to discuss the importance of digital equity among local Black communities. National reports have shown that a lack of internet access strongly correlates with COVID-19 death rates.
â€œOver the last few years, researchers have started to see internet access, and in particular high-speed broadband, as a critical component of health â€” something vital for connecting people not only with health care, but also with food, housing, education, and income, all of which are considered social determinants of health,â€� according to Vox.
In 2020, state-wide efforts immediately focused on the digital needs of in-need youth to assist in providing the tools necessary for remote education.
â€œHelping public libraries reach out to residents who have faced discrimination and need support to join the ranks of the digitally included is central to our mission,â€� LaValle said.
Four CT Public Libraries are participating in the Digital Navigation Pilot Project, a program that trains members of the community to help residents set up affordable broadband internet, obtain electronic devices, and learn a variety of digital skills.
The East Hartford, Hamden, and Hartford locations, along with the Ferguson Library in Stanford have employed four navigators in each library.
â€œBasically, as digital navigators, we meet with clients and we work with them to achieve a goal,â€� said Aujahdai Ambrose, a digital navigator for the East Hartford Public Library.
LaValle explained that navigatorsâ€™ strong interpersonal skills have been crucial to the programâ€™s success.
â€œItâ€™s having someone with that empathy, that patience, but also the skills to be able to teach thisâ€¦and make that connection with a person whoâ€™s never used a computer before,â€� LaValle said.
Ambrose mentioned the value of having several bilingual navigators and libraries on staff.
â€œWeâ€™re making a move so that we can be able to accommodate everybody,â€� Ambrose said. â€œWe have a language line and we also have a Spanish speaker so that clientsâ€¦can still get connected with our programâ€¦even if they donâ€™t speak English.â€�
Access to Broadband
Digital navigators have been most busy helping residents connect with the federal Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), Ambrose said. The ACP offers significant broadband discounts and one-time device discounts to eligible households, according to the Federal Communications Commission.
Each library in the pilot program decided how much of their budget to allocate to devices; the East Hartford Library obtained roughly 100 devicesâ€”Chromebooks and Microsoft Surface Go Tabletsâ€”to give out to residents, according to Ambrose.
Navigators have been trained to teach residents a wide variety of digital basics from learning to typing to navigating Microsoft software, but they aren’t the only ones picking up new skills. Ambrose has been learning to read Braille with a client whoâ€™s visually impaired so they can navigate their devices with more ease.
â€œThereâ€™s one clientâ€¦Iâ€™ve had them for a while because weâ€™ve done so many things from filling out applications to learning zoom to organizing her email, weâ€™ve done it [all],â€� Ambrose said. â€œSo learning Braille is our last stretch.â€�
The Ferguson Library has already begun adjusting its upcoming budget to continue working with its navigators because of the pilot programâ€™s early success, according to Ambrose.
â€œWe want our community to know that there are resources, please come in and take advantage of it,â€� Ambrose said. â€œOur Black [communities] and [other] communities of color are the communities that are really being affected by digital inequity and that’s why we’re here to support them.â€�
Carolina Sernaâ€™s job as a care coordinator for theÂ Clifford Beers, a behavioral health care provider based in New Haven, puts her in the middle of todayâ€™s mental health crisis for kids, teenagers, and their families. When Clifford Beers gets referrals for cases, Serna and other care coordinators become the face of the organization, helping children and families get the clinical care they need. But Serna and her colleagues do much more than that. In a sense, theyâ€™re the bridge between troubled families and the rest of society.
Take one of the many tough situations Serna handled during the COVID-19 crisis: A young Hispanic mother in New Haven had just lost her job. Her husband left. She was pregnant. Her son faced behavioral health and disability issues. And she was being evicted from her apartment. The first thing Serna did was get the mom a lawyer. Then she reached out to the school and social service agencies for help. â€œThe mom didnâ€™t know how to connect, so I connected the family to the help they needed,â€� says Serna, who is bilingual.
The story has a happy endingâ€”at least so far. During the six months that Serna worked with the family, the eviction was stopped, the mom enrolled in a program for people reentering the workforce, and the son was placed in a school for kids with special needs and received the necessary counseling.
Across the nation, the number of adolescents reporting poor mental health is increasing. A U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2021 survey released in March showed that 37% of high school students experienced poor mental health during the pandemic and 44% said they persistently felt sad or hopeless during the previous year.
Separation from school and friends, the threat of becoming seriously ill, and family stressesâ€”including lost jobs and incomeâ€”sent kids to hospital emergency departments in record numbers. Other social stresses fuel crises, including domestic violence, gun violence and racism. The pain is most acute in disadvantaged communities.
The nationâ€™s patchwork health care system isnâ€™t built to handle this kind of crisis. There arenâ€™t nearly enough behavior health caregivers and facilities to address demands for service, especially for poor people, says Dr. Andrew Ulrich, who is in charge of the EDs at Yale New Haven Healthâ€™s hospitals in New Haven. In addition, says Alice M. Forrester, CEO at Clifford Beers, Medicaid reimbursement levels donâ€™t even cover the basic costs of the care organizations like hers provide, forcing them to depend on philanthropy to make ends meet.
The Connecticut General Assembly made a down payment on addressing some of these issues this session when it passed bills, which the governor signed into law recently, that expanded mobile crisis programs throughout the state and created grant programs to hire more school-based counselors.
Despite the depth of the crisis and dearth of funding, there is a glimmer of hope. In communities across the state, groups are collaborating and experimenting with innovative approaches to improving health and well-being. One example is how Serna of Clifford Beers helped the New Haven woman and her children. The idea is that when the social determinants of health are considered and community resources are coordinated, the well-being of individuals and entire communities can improve. The approach also involves families and neighborhood organizations in decisions affecting them.
Ultimately, these experiments could change how our society thinks about and delivers health care. Following this model, health care and social service organizations arenâ€™t competing with one another or operating in isolation but are working together to achieve common aims. â€œWeâ€™re shifting from short-term self-interest to long-term shared interest,â€� says Rick Brush, the CEO of Wellville, a national nonprofit health advisory group that assists local collaboratives in five U.S. communities, including north Hartford neighborhoods.
The community-health-collaboration idea is taking hold in Connecticut. Just before the pandemic, Connecticutâ€™s Office of Health Strategy (OHS) launched its Health Enhancement Community (HEC) initiative. So far, nine HECs have been established across the state. All are focused on community-led collaborations aimed at addressing social, economic, and physical conditions to improve general well-being. OHS is also encouraging the HECs to change the incentives in the health care systemâ€”from pay-for-service to paying for better health outcomes. â€œOur strategy is around driving community-directed and community-led initiatives to address specific needs in each community, reducing disparities and ensuring communities are engaged for the long game,â€� says Victoria Veltri, OHS executive director.
In Hartford, for instance, a HEC was organized under the auspices of the North Hartford Triple Aim Collaborative, whose goal is to improve individual and community health while lowering health care costs. The group includes representatives from the city of Hartford, the United Way, Trinity Health, Connecticut Childrenâ€™s, and Hartford Hospital, but it also invites community organizations and individuals to the table.
In addition, Connecticut Childrenâ€™s has partnered with the City of Hartford, Hartford Public Schools, and other organizations to develop a signature new project, the North Hartford Ascend Pipeline. They landed a $30 million federal grant to be matched by local contributions that will fund an array of interlocking services to improve the well-being of young people from prenatal into young adulthood. â€œThe key is getting to children and supporting families early,â€� says Dr. Paul H. Dworkin, director of Connecticut Childrenâ€™s Office for Community Child Health. â€œThat way, we can achieve much better outcomes for these children as they grow to be adolescents and adults.â€�
Community health innovators in Connecticut arenâ€™t shy about adopting and adapting approaches that have been piloted elsewhere. For instance, the community outreach program at Clifford Beers is based on the Wrap-Around Milwaukee model for coordinating social and health care services.
Clifford Beers plans to take its community engagement to another level with a resilience center it hopes to locate in New Havenâ€™s Newhallville neighborhood, offering early childhood services, mental health programs, after-school programs, and community health and disease prevention activities.
Health experts say the closer these coordinated service programs get to neighborhoods and familiesâ€”really listening to what people want rather than dictating to themâ€”the more likely they will have positive effects.
When Cynthia Cruz, a bilingual coordinator serving the communities of northwest Connecticut for Wellmore Behavioral Health, gets assigned to a new youth behavioral health case, the first thing she does is visit the family in their home.
They discuss whatâ€™s going on and what they would like changed. Her program only lasts six months, so she also reaches out to others in the community to see if they can help on a longer-term basis, including pastors, sports coaches, and extended family members. Wellmore refers to these human networks as â€œnatural resources.â€�
Cruz recalls one situation involving a boy and his family in the far northwest corner of the state. Earlier in the COVID crisis, the boy had retreated to his room and spent much of his time playing video games. He withdrew from his family, barely talking to his mother. During sit-downs with the family, Cruz learned that the boy loved to watch football on TV, but he didnâ€™t play the game. So, in addition to finding a counselor for him, she recruited his uncle to toss a football around with him once a week. That broke the ice. She got the family a membership at the local YMCA. The boy began socializing with other people. He and his mom reconciled. â€œYou know what they say,â€� says Cruz. â€œIt takes a village to raise a child.â€�
A program launched by a team at Yaleâ€™s Child Study Center, Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions (SPACE), puts parents at the center of their offspringâ€™s care. Clinicians train parents to deal directly with children who have anxiety disorders, rather than depending on professional therapy sessions.
â€œThere are young people who canâ€™t or wonâ€™t engage with cognitive therapy, so we were driven to find another tool,â€� says Eli R. Lebowitz, an associate professor at the Child Study Center whose team developed the technique. Their approach has been adopted by therapists worldwide and really took off after Lebowitz published a best-selling book in 2021 about it, â€œBreaking Free of Child Anxiety and OCD.â€�
In one of Lebowitzâ€™s cases, a 12-year-old Milford girl had developed such severe anxiety that she would not speak to anyone outside her home. Lebowitz helped the parents understand they were hampering her recovery by speaking for her in such situations. They changed their behavior, which gradually led to their daughter regaining confidence and speaking for herself once again.
COVID triggered the youth behavioral health crisis, but it has also encouraged innovative approaches that could help address the problems young people face going forward.
â€œIt has been a deep, deep couple of years, and, for the clinic, it has been in some ways revolutionary,â€� says Forrester of Clifford Beers. â€œWe have emphasized the outreach work in the communities. Now weâ€™re seeing the aftereffects, and we know what needs to be done.â€�
To connect with the Anxiety and Mood Disorders Program at the Yale Child Study Center, where free care is available in certain circumstances, call (203) 737-4644.
Meriden students from Maloney and Platt High School organized separate student walkouts earlier this month to protest against gun violence and honor the victims of the Uvalde, Texas mass shooting at Robb Elementary School.
Several Maloney seniors organized a walkout on June 1 and three Platt students, including Junior Jocelynn LÃ³pez, hosted their walkout the following day. Students reflected on how the May 24 shooting has impacted Latino communities across the country.
â€œBeing Latina myself, it was hard to hear that my community was hurt and is suffering during this difficult time,â€� LÃ³pez said. â€œUs Latinos stick together, and if one is hurt, then we all hurt and this felt like it hit so close to home.â€�
LÃ³pez also pointed out that Platt has a diverse student body. About 60 percent of Platt students identify as Latino while Latinos make up around 90 percent of Robb Elementary Schoolâ€™s student population, according to Record-Journal.
â€œWhen Sandy Hook happened, we were in second grade, and I remembered my parents pulling me into their room to talk about it,â€� said Mikayla Bunnell, another organizer of the Platt walkout. â€œBut this is different because we understood the gravity of the situation and now that weâ€™re older we can be activists in our community.â€�
The Middleton Board of Education has unanimously approved, with a vote of 9 to 0, to name Dr. Alberto VÃ¡zquez Matos superintendent of schools.
VÃ¡zquez Matos is the first bilingual and biliterate Hispanic-Latino superintendent for the district. He had been acting superintendent since October, when Michael Conner took a leave of absence, and later resigned.
“In the nearly eight months that Dr. VÃ¡zquez Matos has been the Acting Superintendent, he has proven himself to be a leader that is able to bring about necessary organizational changes, all the while building relationships, restoring trust, and renewing the districtâ€™s commitment and focus on student learning, growth, and well-being,” a school district spokesperson told NBC Connecticut.
Hispanics-Latinos make up 17 percent of Connecticutâ€™s population; 11 percent of them live in Middleton that has nearly 48,000 residents.
VÃ¡zquez Matos was born in the town of Naranjito, located in Puerto Ricoâ€™s interior. His mother relocated the family â€” he is one of four children â€” to the Bronx in New York City when he was young, and it was there that he grew up and began his career in education.
â€œMom was a big influencer in our lives, in the sense of knowing that education was a way to break the cycle of poverty for us growing up,â€� he told the Daily Hampshire Gazette while schools receiver/superintendent of Holyoke Public Schools.
School officials said Vazquez Matos holds a doctorate of education degree and a doctorate of philosophy, along with having 25 years of teaching and 22 years of educational administrative experience.
Vazquez Matos started with the school district in July 2021 as the chief academic officer.
Cover Photo: Dr. Alberto VÃ¡zquez Matos, seen in his office, receiver/superintendent for Holyoke Public Schools. Daily Hampshire Gazette/Kevin Gutting.
Welcome to another episode of Connecticut Latino News Opinion+, where we talk about major issues Latinx and underrepresented communities face.
This week we spoke with Lucas Pimentel, CEO of CT LEAD.Â
Latinos for Educational Advocacy and Diversity (LEAD) officially began its operations on June 28, 2021, offering a variety of free services across the state since then. However, the idea was initially formed in 2019 by a group of CT Latino parents who sought to create more educational opportunities tailored to Latino and Hispanic students. The groupâ€™s four pillars include educational options, civic engagement, financial literacy, and Latino history and culture.
â€œThe Latino community usually has bigger challenges than traditional communitiesâ€¦ and that only became worse during the pandemic when a lot of immigrant families had to try to navigate technology and faced so many other things that ended up making them fall [further] behind,â€� Pimentel explained.
In Danbury, the headquarters of CT LEAD, about 50 percent of English Learner students have dropped out of school, according to Pimentel. The organization seeks effective educational opportunities for young Latinos across the state to create a future that is led and guided by Latinos.Â
â€œWe are losing many of our youth and many times their path ends up being low-income jobs or prison,â€� Pimentel said. â€œWe really want to make sure that education becomes our number one pillar, so we can start finding solutions and we think the solution has to come from our own community.â€�