By Sam Bojarski

From mental health challenges, to food insecurity and employment, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact the Haitian community. 

A food distribution at Flatlands Reformed Church. Photo by Sam Bojarski

“There’s a lot of anxiety right now, the biggest issue is about food,” said Yolette Williams, executive director  of the Haitian American Alliance (HAA), a nonprofit based in Brooklyn that supports the empowerment of the Haitian-American community. 

To help Haitian community organizations and leaders share their needs and service offerings amid the coronavirus pandemic, Healthfirst ‒ New York state’s largest nonprofit health insurer ‒ has convened multiple virtual forums. The sessions, which have occurred the last two Thursdays in July, have included many organizations that serve communities in Long Island. 

In addition to helping Healthfirst create solutions, “sometimes what will happen is we will be able to connect dots, so that others who are participating in the forum can say, ‘hey this is something we can address,’” said Miguel Centeno, vice president of community engagement at Healthfirst. 

Nearly 50 participants joined the last forum on July 30, including representatives from Yam Community Resource, Haitian American Family of Long Island, HAA and elected officials from Nassau County. 

“We recognize that there is certainly a growing Haitian community in Long Island. And also, when our team reached out to organizations based in Long Island, they expressed to us a willingness to have a platform, a willingness to have a forum through which we can identify needs,” Centeno said. 

Williams served as a guest speaker at the July 30 forum, discussing HAA’s partnership with Healthfirst. Through this partnership, HAA has started using a tool called CommRx, a digital tool developed by the company NowPow, that allows community based organizations (CBOs) to connect clients to services in the community. 

Yam Community Resource, a nonprofit based in Huntington Station, New York, that offers Creole-language translation services and programs for seniors, has been using the forums to raise awareness about available services in the community. 

Its executive officer and president, Ginette Rows, was also scheduled to address the importance of the 2020 census at the most recent forum. 

“Anything that’s new, that’s being said to the community, we are communicating with business leaders, with pastors in the community, to make sure that the information moves from the organizations to the people who are in need and then do follow up to make sure that the service they need, they receive it,” Rows said in an interview with The Haitian Times. 

As one solution to address the challenge of food insecurity, which has impacted the Haitian community and numerous other New Yorkers, Centeno said Healthfirst is making sure organizations are aware of NowPow’s CommRx tool and register to use it. The tool lists food pantries throughout the New York City area, in addition to other services. 

Williams said she would eventually like to see similar forums for organizations in Brooklyn, which she described as “the hub of the Haitian community.” 

Another Healthfirst forum for Haitian organizations is scheduled for Aug. 6. Healthfirst could continue hosting similar forums going forward. 

“That is absolutely the idea, is for us to take this initial approach and bring it where it makes sense, right, so that it will start in Long Island, and then we will expand it, not only to other geographies in the service area but other communities as well,” Centeno said. 

Organizations interested in joining a forum can reach out to Healthfirst Events Specialist Heather Cuccia, at hcuccia@Healthfirst.org.

Sam is a reporter for The Haitian Times and a 2020 Report for America fellow. He has covered Haiti and its diaspora since 2018. His work has also appeared in USA Today, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and Haiti Liberte. Sam can be reached at sam@haitiantimes.com or on Twitter @sambojarski.

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