CFMT Grantee: When disasters strike, Latinos rely on Conexión Américas

Founded in 2002, Conexión Américas builds a welcoming community and creates opportunities where Latino families can belong, contribute and succeed. As the largest Latino-serving organization in Tennessee, each year its statewide organization assists more than 9,000 individuals and their families in their desire to start and expand businesses, pay taxes, improve their English, help their children succeed in school and go to college, and become an integral part of Nashville’s vitality.

The organization serves both Latino immigrant children in urban Nashville and the rural children of migrant farmworkers across the state of Tennessee, particularly in East Tennessee. Conexión Américas has 50 staff members. While the organization is based in Nashville, 21 of its staff members live and work in rural communities covering 36 counties throughout the state. The organization has received a $30,000 grant from the Middle Tennessee Emergency Response Fund.

The heart of the area’s Latino community has been beating even stronger and faster lately.

Nashville-based Conexión Américas immediately began fielding texts and phone calls in the wake of deadly and destructive tornadoes that tore through Middle Tennessee on March 3. 

At its Casa Azafrán base on Nolensville Pike in Southeast Nashville, the organization hosted about 200 tornado survivors, including 90 pre-K students. Its call center remained at the ready. Collaboration with city and state officials and other nonprofits and groups began in earnest and continues, as does the relief and rebuilding process.

Meanwhile, the global pandemic hit — and hit hard — particularly in the Latino communities.

Recent data revealed that 24 percent of all positive cases of COVID-19 in the state of Tennessee have been in Latino communities.

That’s a truly alarming percentage.

Conexión Américas Executive Director Juliana Ospina Cano, who is a member of Nashville’s COVID-19 Response Fund chaired by former U.S. Senator, Dr. Bill Frist, responded to questions from The Community Foundation on June 9:

CFMT:  How are you using, or planning to utilize, the tornado emergency response grant?

CA: The March 3rd tornadoes in Middle Tennessee activated Conexión Américas’ seasoned rapid response and disaster relief abilities. Within hours of the storm, we met with city and law enforcement officials to designate our phone line as the official helpline for Spanish-speaking community members affected by the tornado. In the afternoon, we teamed up with The American Muslim Advisory Council, Metro Council member Zulfat Suara, the Murfreesboro Muslim Youth, and Chef Yassin of Knoxville, Tennessee to open up our Mesa Komal culinary incubator to prepare and deliver meals for tornado victims across the city.

Over the next few days, our staff began the hard work of identifying and locating areas of Middle Tennessee, where Spanish-speaking immigrants were living hit by the tornado. This effort has required days of multiple in-person sight visits to meet and interview families and gather information about needs.

Some of the damage was concentrated in dense areas, such as a mobile home park in Lebanon. Homes were completely moved from their foundations. However, we also had to pinpoint less-concentrated areas of damage in Lebanon and Hermitage, where there was less attention and less access to relief efforts.

Back at Casa Azafrán, our office became a donation center for food and supplies. Taking the information gleaned from our site visits and work in the community, we packed food and supplies in separate boxes for identified families and delivered them within the same day.

Over time, we met personally with over 40 families affected by the tornado, whom we have engaged with on different levels. In addition to in-person site visits where we would document needs, we connected with families via a dedicated phone line for tornado relief, and referrals from staff members who had called to check in on all Conexión Américas program participants the morning after the tornado.

Thanks to support from The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee, we were able to give direct economic assistance to 16 families. However, we were also able to support families from the generous donations of community members, which included food, water, cleaning supplies, and gift cards to grocery stores and home improvement stores.

Several cases required dedicated and intensive follow-up to ensure families safely recovered from damage inflicted by the tornado. One young pregnant woman found herself at the rescue mission after having to evacuate her home. She very soon had her baby and was unable to return to the rescue mission because they did not allow newborns. Our staff worked hard to prevent her from experiencing homelessness by securing a temporary hotel room and vital supplies for this woman and her newborn as she found a different place to stay.

CFMT: In light of changes in how we all live and work due to the COVID-19 coronavirus, how is your organization managing to work in supporting tornado relief and recovery efforts? What challenges have you all overcome or are overcoming?

CA: Like all of Conexión Américas’ team members, our tornado recovery caseworker has been working remotely since mid-March due to COVID-19. However, he has a Google Voice phone number and accounts for several video conferencing platforms, allowing him to “meet” with tornado recovery applicants. He has also distributed items to families affected by the tornado using social distancing measures.

In addition, our administrative team quickly developed the necessary mechanisms to be able to distribute financial assistance to families during this remote work period. All financial assistance awards to tornado victims are tracked in Charity Tracker, the secure, online data management platform used by several other Davidson County financial assistance organizations. This system prevents duplication of efforts and ensures that we maximize the use of our financial resources.

Conexión Américas Executive Director Juliana Ospina Cano

CFMT: Give a favorite example or two of your staffers or volunteers stepping up to make a difference to help people through these disasters, and/or a client or clients who have benefited from your efforts. 

CA: In partnership with the American Muslim Advisory Council and Metro Nashville Councilwoman At Large Zulfat Suara, we hosted Yassin Terrou from Knoxville’s Yassin Falafel House restaurant, and a team of volunteer chefs to provide immediate food relief. Our culinary incubator, Mesa Komal, served as a community kitchen to prepare over 450 meals for affected families and relief workers. Chef Yassin was interviewed live on “Good Morning America” from Casa Azafrán to highlight his impact on the community.

CFMT: In terms of tornado relief and recovery, what needs remain in your community or communities?

CA: Through phone calls and WhatsApp sessions with Conexión Américas’ staff, we have seen that many of the families affected by the March 2020 tornadoes also lost jobs or had their work hours reduced due to COVID-19. We are particularly concerned about these families, who have faced two significant financial and personal challenges in such a short period of time.

CFMT: Define the word “hope” for you and your organization.

CA: Hope at Conexión Américas is coupled with action. Each year, 9,000 families come to Conexión Américas to share their aspirations, dreams, and fears with our team. From parents and

guardians seeking assistance on how to enroll their children in school, a DACA recipient seeking guidance on how to renew their permit in the United States, parents of our Escalera students processing and filing their taxes with us, to a small-business owner wanting to formalize their business in Nashville. Immigrant-origin families come to Conexión Américas because we celebrate, respect and value their dreams.

We believe that while integration requires adaptation to the new community by immigrants, it also asks of the host community an understanding and respect for immigrants’ cultures and the provision of culturally competent services to respond to the population’s diversity, needs, and capabilities. We believe that integration requires a double-way learning process for both newcomers and the host community, and we are committed to the construction of bridges between the two.

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