Before the pandemic, Ruby Stemmle might have worn gloves to lead a tree planting or stream cleanup event. But on a sweltering July afternoon, she was wearing latex ones to deliver food to a long line of drivers weaving through a high school parking lot in Hyattsville, Maryland.

Stemmle is the founder and CEO of ecoLatinos, a nonprofit that focuses on environmental justice and activism within the Latino community. Within the past several months, their mission has come to include protecting families against the deadly spread of COVID-19. When Catholic Charities, a frequent partner of ecoLatinos, arranged a food drive in a city where the Hispanic or Latino population is nearly double the national average, Stemmle and her staff of volunteers jumped at the opportunity to help.

“Watching the news in February and March was almost like watching a disaster movie in real time,” said Stemmle. “We knew that it would only be a matter of time before the pandemic would strike our neighborhoods.”

For ecoLatinos, health and safety has always been a consideration when connecting Latinos with the environment. But since the coronavirus arrived, mitigating the risk of exposure to the virus and all the social impacts that come with it has become the organization’s number one priority. Food drives such as the one that Stemmle’s organization participated in provide relief for the broader community as impacts of the virus amplify.

ecoLatinos volunteer put groceries into a family's van.

Josue Sorto, left, and Ronaldo Urrutia, seniors from Northwestern High School, load food into the trunk of a car passing through the food distribution line. (Photo by Carlin Stiehl/Chesapeake Bay Program)

A community hit hard

Latin American communities have been hit especially hard by the coronavirus, with research showing that in the Baltimore-D.C area, COVID-19 is being diagnosed in Hispanic communities at a disproportionately high rate.

One of the reasons is that to continue working, many Latin Americans in the Chesapeake region have been unable to social distance. According to Stemmle, “Many Hispanic residents are essential workers or have to go out to earn their living one day at a time.” Many others from the community also work in service industries where contact with the public can increase their risk of infection.

Another issue is the high number of people living within Latin American households and communities. “Families, especially the recently arrived, tend to live in densely clustered neighborhoods where social distancing can be challenging and a disease like coronavirus can spread very rapidly,” Stemmle said. Yet another difficulty is gaining access to insurance and health care. Many undocumented workers are deterred from such benefits for fear of potential legal consequences.

Woman directs traffic during food drive.

Ruby Stemmle, CEO of ecoLatinos, ushers drivers through the food distribution line at Northwestern High School, which has a 97% minority enrollment. The distribution was organized through Catholic Charities, an organization that ecoLatinos collaborates with. (Photo by Carlin Stiehl/Chesapeake Bay Program)

A nonprofit shifts its efforts

Rather than promoting outdoor, environmental activities, the nonprofit uses its Facebook group to promote staying at home, practicing proper sanitization and avoiding exposure while being outside. Their campaigns include messages such as “Se un Heroe, Cuida a los Tuyos” which translates to “Be a Hero, Take care of your loved ones” and “Protégete contra el Coronavirus,” or “Protect yourself against Coronavirus.”

Stemmle emphasizes the importance of “cultural competence” when engaging with communities. For example, recognizing that some community members do not have access to desktop computers or email, ecoLatinos communicates primarily through Facebook and mobile devices, which are more common. Social media posts are also written in Spanish only to create a sense of direct engagement with Latino communities.

Looking forward, Stemmle is adapting the nonprofit’s engagement long-term, including their popular Festival del Rio Anacostia. Instead of the in-person festival originally planned for October, ecoLatinos is working with partners to create a series of virtual environmental education and awareness activities.

“The pandemic has forced us to think in creative new ways to share the same information with the families and the community but in a safe yet exciting way,” Stemmle said. “This crisis has forced much bigger changes to our society than this, but this is the challenge we face and we are trying to rise to the occasion.”



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