Victoria Montero is the director of the Hispanic Center of the Lehigh Valley (HCLV). The Hispanic Center has been a central leader in providing Latinx community members with support during the Covid-19 pandemic. Southsider interviewed Montero to learn about the important work of HCLV in rising to the challenges presented by the pandemic.
HP: To start us off, how would you describe the Hispanic Center’s (HCLV’s) mission and purpose? And can you tell us a little about your role there?
VM: I’m going to start with a little bit of the history and how we got started. So, the Hispanic Center Lehigh Valley has been open for 52 years in the Lehigh Valley. It was started by the Puerto Rican community that was coming to work at Bethlehem Steel. These workers wanted to create an organization that would build the social capital of new people coming into the area and connect them to resources so they could be self-sufficient.
Over the 52 years our services have evolved. We currently offer a senior center for the hispanic population, meal services, recreational activities, field trips, and monitoring of health issues, in addition to a food pantry for residents of Northampton County.
I am the Executive Director, overseeing all the operations, the administration, the resources, the budget, community partnerships, and I am always looking for opportunities for growth for our community center and opportunities for capacity building.
HP: How has the Covid-19 pandemic changed or complicated the Hispanic Center’s mission and services?
VM: We have had to completely switch our operations to continue providing services. Our food pantry previously was offering three day supplies of food to each household, but we cannot have the food pantry open as it was before. So now it continues to be in operation, but by appointment following CDC guidance. Due to Covid, we’ve seen a huge increase in need for food services for participants at the Hispanic Center. We average in a normal fiscal year close to 1,000 food pantry clients. However, due to Covid, from March until June 2020, we saw 997 clients in just those three months, nearly the average for an entire year. Additionally, we have seen an increase in the number of people living in each household. On average, the households that we provide services to consist of 2-3 people, but in the last three months the households have had an average of 4 to 6 people. That means that there are more people living together in the same households due to unemployment, more children being home from school, and everything else that has happened with Covid. So our food pantry has definitely seen the biggest increase of all the programs.
HP: You are reflecting that food insecurity seems to be the biggest need demonstrated by the Hispanic Center community. Have there been other community needs that have arisen because of the pandemic?
VM: Another need we are starting to see is the need for rental assistance. With the unemployment rate and the inability to safely start working, and the economy, people are beginning to call the center to inquire about housing assistance.
HP: How do you see the Covid-19 pandemic affecting the future programs and services of HCLV?
VM: For the Hispanic Center, we were able to keep the food pantry open for the entire pandemic, but our senior center is not open right now. We have continued to provide services to our seniors though, bringing them food packages twice a month. 471 meal packages. What we are also doing is providing case management services over the phone, and helping our seniors complete the census 2020 because it’s really critical for nonprofits to have our clients fill out the census. We are providing them with Covid education, making sure they understand the changes that are happening on a daily basis, locally, nationally, and on the state level. We’re also looking for a way to engage technology, like Zoom meetings, to ensure that we keep our seniors engaged. As of now, we don’t know when we will be opening up our senior center, but in these ways we have been able to provide services to this population.
Our case management program has been a little more limited, but we still have been able to provide some services over the phone, including referring participants who need rental assistance to local organizations that have been able to help with rental assistance. Our WIC program that provides nutrition education had to switch completely to phone services. We’ve had to decrease the number of clients we’ve seen through this program because it is not the same as being able to support them in person in our facility.
So because of Covid, we had to really manage our programs completely differently. Other nonprofits across the Lehigh Valley had to close for some time, but we decided we had to stay open throughout the whole pandemic because we wanted to be sure that our clients would be able to receive the services that they always have from the Hispanic Center. We’re always looking at ways to continue these programs, and looking cautiously at ways we could reopen, but as the Covid numbers increase in our community, we are being especially cautious because we want to ensure our participants and our staff are safe.
HP: If we could backtrack to an earlier point you made regarding spreading Covid-19 education, have you found any particular difficulties of adapting the information out there for the Latinx community in terms of language, trust, or access?
VM: There is limited Spanish educational material for the community that we serve. And oftentimes, when the information is released it is too condensed. There is too much information, and that can be difficult for some of our clients to understand. There are many factors to this disconnect. They might not be able to read and write well in English. They might not be able to even understand English. So, we try to simplify the information in a way that they can understand it. We’ve also seen the need for reminding people of the importance of masks when they pick up food from the food pantry, giving them a mask if needed.
HP: From what you’ve seen, have there been any unique impacts for the Latinx communities that participate in the Hispanic Center, or the senior participants in particular, as opposed to other populations?
VM: Well I think Covid has hit everyone in our community regardless of socio-economic status. However, there is research being done on the national level, and we can see it locally too, how Covid-19 has impacted communities of color especially. And this is for many reasons: because of housing situations, because of unemployment, preexisting health conditions, the work environment that some of our community members are working in. So we definitely have seen that data reflected in our own services.
HP: From your perspective, what does this crisis teach us about how our communities and governments should change to be better prepared in the future to support nonprofits like the Hispanic Center to ensure that the work they are doing can get done, even in the face of crisis?
VM: Nonprofits have limited resources, and when you have limited resources, and crisis hits, it is really hard to figure out how to continue services. Many nonprofits now are working from home, but our center doesn’t have that capability because of limited technology and the nature of the services we offer the community.
This was definitely an opportunity for nonprofits to learn about how they could improve capacity within our centers, to be able to continue providing services.
HP: How has the pandemic impacted the elderly participants of the Hispanic Center?
Our seniors were used to coming to our center Monday through Friday, engaging with their friends, engaging in activities. Unfortunately because of Covid they are all home, but they continue to call our staff on a daily basis. They look forward to when our staff bring meal packages to their home. Sometimes they even have cooked meals for staff because they’re so excited they’re coming. They talk to the staff about what they’ve been doing in life. They want to make sure our staff know they are protecting themselves, and are so ready to come back when the doors are open again. So, though they can’t have the full experience of being fully engaged in our senior center, we have found alternative ways to be engaged with them.
HP: What are you the most proud of that the HCLV has done to be creative in addressing this crisis? What has been the most challenging?
VM: The greatest challenge was simply how to remain open during this crisis without endangering ourselves, but we made the decision to remain open, and it was definitely the right decision.
What I am most proud of is our staff. They have gone above and beyond to ensure that our clients continue to get what they need. It took a lot from our leadership team, our board, our staff, who are working endless hours and being so creative in finding ways to stay open for our clients. We would not be able to be where we are today without their incredible support.
HP: How can other community members support the really important work that HCLV is doing?
MV: Even now more than ever, financial support is so important. If people are interested in making a donation, and helping us address food insecurity issues in our community, that would make the most impact right now.
Victoria Montero’s work with the Hispanic Center reveals the tangible impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on communities, in ways that permeate out beyond health and risk. The Hispanic Center has ensured that they have adapted to the circumstances of the moment while providing support for the elders in the Lehigh Valley Latinx community, as well as Latinx households who are battling food insecurity at new levels. Montero’s insights reveal the challenges that nonprofits have had to face in these new circumstances, and the tenacity and persistence of the Hispanic Center staff and board to ensure that they continue to accomplish their mission. The Lehigh Valley community can take Victoria Montero and the Hispanic Center as a model for the kind of structures that we need to continue to support communities, especially during times of crisis. Help HCLV continue their mission by donating through the link below.