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CIELO adapts, expands services for Latino community in response to COVID-19

The Olympian - BY SARA GENTZLER, APRIL 25, 2020 05:45 AM

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, CIELO has been adapting and expanding the resources and services it offers to support immigrants and refugees in the South Sound. The organization — which is known by the acronym for Centro Integral Educativo Latino de Olympia — fills a gap for the population it serves, who speak Spanish, Mam, and Kanjobal and may not be able to access public assistance because of immigration status or a language barrier, says CIELO board of directors chair Mary Ferris. Among other supports, the organization offers a food bank and educational, counseling, and advocacy services.

“The portion of our community which is already working hard to overcome the barriers of a new language, navigating a new culture, and thriving in an area with a higher cost of living than their origin is now faced with layoffs from hourly jobs and exclusion from government stimulus packages unless they have completed the long journey to citizenship,” Ferris wrote in a prepared statement. Updates about frequent changes to everyday life during the pandemic — changes toschools, transportation, business restrictions — are published in English, which can delay their understanding of those messages, Ferris wrote. And agricultural workers, considered “essential,”are facing increased health risks because they work close together but many lack health insurance to cover treatment if they need it. While demand was increasing, the social distancing required by the pandemic also forced the organization to rapidly change internal operations — learn new software, buy new hardware, and find ways to connect with each other and clients — so it could start delivering services remotely. It’s a transition Ferris says took CIELO roughly two weeks starting March 13, their last day with access to a physical office. AN EXPANDED, REVAMPED FOOD BANK One big change: Before the pandemic, CIELO’s monthly food bank was hosted in partnership with Thurston County Food Bank inside The Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in southeast Olympia, which is also houses CIELO’s offices. At the monthly events, the organization would serve about 45 to 50 families over the course of three hours, according to CIELO spokesperson Dianna Torres Angulo. With the pandemic forcing people out of work, the need for food and other necessities has risen. Now, CIELO is hosting two mobile food banks per month — still in partnership with the Thurston County Food Bank and Good Shepherd — employing a drive-thru model that allows people to stay in their cars while groceries and goods are loaded into the trunk. Volunteers have started serving twice the number of families in half the amount of time, says Torres Angulo. Friday, they served 107. “The need has come from the situation we’re currently in, and CIELO has adapted its mode of operation to rise to what the need is and fill it,” Torres Angulo said. About half an hour before Friday’s food bank event, a line of vehicles had already roped around Good Shepherd’s parking lot. This visit, families received two full bags of groceries, along with toiletries. About a dozen volunteers worked in an assembly line, placing boxes and bags in trunks. At the end of the line, families were asked if they needed diapers and wipes and given any supplies needed. Barb Lantz, president of the church council, told The Olympian that, while the food comes from Thurston County Food Bank, the hygiene supplies are purchased by the congregation. The volunteers come from both CIELO and Good Shepherd. Carolina Mejia told The Olympian she’s been volunteering for CIELO for a couple of years and worked at the last two drive-thru food bank events. She’s currently hosting her own diaper drive to contribute to the food bank. “I don’t think people realize the need in the community,” said Mejia, who’s running for a spot on the Thurston County Board of Commissioners. She said she was shocked by the need, that everyone she’s interacted with has been thankful, and called the whole experience “humbling.” Good Shepherd Pastor Aaron Baughman told The Olympian it felt eerie when the church had to close its doors — that the church is normally bustling and “all about hospitality.” “I’ve heard from a lot of our members that they want to do something, they want to be involved,” Baughman said. “And this is a way, by us being able to host CIELO, they can give back to the community.” REMOTE ADVOCACY, EDUCATIONAL SERVICES CIELO mental health advocates and advocates for survivors of crime and domestic violence are now offering services remotely, Angulo Torres says. They’re helping people navigate their needs and connecting them with resources such as the COVID-19 Relief Fund for Undocumented Individuals in Washington State, which has been coordinated by several organizations, including Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network. CIELO is offering its English lessons online, and trying to figure out how to also offer remote sewing and computer classes for adults, says Kindra Galan, education program coordinator. And it’s aiming to continue supporting a group of students academically. “We understand, right now, that a lot of the families we’re working with don’t understand the packets that their school is sending them, or they don’t even have access to a computer or internet,” Galan said. School districts are trying to get families connected, and CIELO is trying to fill in the gaps in the meantime, Galan said. The organization is teaching adults and kids to use Zoom so volunteers can still provide tutoring, and teaching parents how to contact their kids’ teachers and use websites necessary for their online learning. Families sought the educational services before, but Galan says the demand now feels different. “It’s a higher demand, in a different way, especially because we’re the only organization that’s really trying to provide this service to the Latinx community, in their language,” said Galan. “It’s an organization that is for us, by us.” HOW YOU CAN HELP — AND GET HELP For the foreseeable future, the mobile food banks are scheduled for every other Friday at noon at Good Shepherd, at North Street and Henderson Boulevard, across from Olympia High School. The next one is scheduled for May 8, Torres Angulo says. Those wishing to receive food and hygiene products through one of the events can register by texting the letters CIELOMFB to number 31996. The cut-off to ensure there’s enough food for those registered is 6 p.m. the Monday before each event. Those in need of another CIELO service, who want to volunteer, or who have questions about donating physical items such as diapers or food can call 360-709-0931 or email

. Volunteers also can fill out a form on CIELO’s website. The organization’s Facebook page also features a group people can follow to get up-to-date information on resources available, Ferris says. Ferris says that, in the short-term, the organization is not yet in financial “panic mode,” but that uncertainty lies ahead. Monetary donations can be made to CIELO: Online at, or By mail at CIELO Olympia, 1601 North St. SE, Olympia, WA 98501

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