The Next Door, Inc. one of our Vaccine Fund partners, embodies an ethos of neighborliness and community-building that invites their Hood River community, and those who travel from far away to work there, to the table.
In 2021, United Way of the Columbia-Willamette developed a pooled fund to support efforts of community partners across Oregon in vaccine advocacy, access and education. This fund was focused on providing resources for communities of color, with an initial focus on Latinx working families and the Pacific Islander community. We officially ended this program at the end of last year.
The results were outstanding: Overall, grantees cited the Vaccine Fund as a valuable resource, appreciating the flexible funding we provided; we were able to host or partner on 590 clinics, vaccinating over 30,000 people.
We had a multitude of partners throughout this effort, one of which was The Next Door. The Next Door is a unique nonprofit. Their programs are broad-reaching and varied, targeting a multitude of issues with a myriad of programs, all in the name of building a more inclusive, supportive and sustainable community. The organization started in 1971 as a farmhouse on the corner of May and 11th Street in Hood River intended to offer transitional housing to at-risk youth; it was a home with an open door (as their logo shows) that offered support wherever it was needed. That open door policy has survived as the organization grew to now include over two dozen programs in Hood River, Wasco, Klickitat, Gilliam, Wheeler, Skamania and Sherman counties.
Their programs have continued to offer a safety net for children at risk of abuse and neglect, as well as expanded to offer leadership opportunities, economic development, parenting support, mentoring, advocacy and wellness education. When the COVID-19 pandemic emerged as a threat to their community, they stood up and became a hub of culturally specific information, coordinating with the Hispanic community, including many migrant workers in the area, to ensure they had access to knowledge and treatment.
“We’re embedded in our communities in so many ways,” says Anna Osborn, Program Manager at the Next Door. “When I describe what we do, I say we’re one of the Gorge’s largest nonprofits and our mission is to open doors to new opportunities for families and children. If you distill everything we do, with our 100-plus programs and seven departments, down to one thing it’s to ensure our community thrives and feels empowered to be successful.”
United Way of the Columbia-Willamette supported The Next Door throughout the pandemic with our Vaccine Fund, helping the organization educate migrant seasonal farmworkers on vaccine efficacy and facilitate vaccination clinics and popups for this vulnerable population. Through their vast network of embedded community health workers, The Next Door was able to effectively and efficiently educate the thousands of migrant farmworkers who travel to the Gorge yearly for cherry harvests and other orchard work. Their training program, Valle Verde, specialized in Spanish-language health promotion, with a focus on cultural relevancy. Beyond educating the Spanish-language population about the risks of COVID-19 and the potential options for mitigating the virus’s harm, the program also promoted and normalized mental health care in a time when many were struggling.
The Next Door undertook a coordinated effort to increase access to PPE, healthcare, safe housing, improved working conditions and effective messaging to get the word out about the dangers of COVID-19 and ensure workers were protected and educated. But that wasn’t the only help they provided. As the stark realities of COVID-19 set in, needs sprung up from all over the community.
“Food banks had been overrun and were understaffed. No one was expecting the demand. Our community health workers were and still are helping deliver food boxes that are culturally specific. We deliver them to farms and orchards directly, and the community health workers help out at local food banks as Spanish speaking volunteers,” Osborn said.
This more recent shift in focus to food distribution comes as climate change disrupts what used to be a regular, seasonal workload. Thousands of migrant workers traveled to the Gorge last year, as they do every year, expecting work that wasn’t there. Due to a prolonged rainy season, a late start to summer, abnormal heat and a late start to fall, orchards, farms and vineyards were unable to offer jobs that these folks relied on, and traveled for. They received funding from Oregon Health Authority to respond to this, knowing that roughly 6,000 migrant workers come to The Gorge yearly, an influx that works, lives and travels in tight quarters with little access to equipment and support to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. They focused on providing wraparound services, with their community health workers creating videos filled with knowledge and resources. They delivered food from local food banks to farms and orchards as well, and helped food banks better service Hispanic community members.
“As things started getting less dire, we were able to do outreach in person. And everything shifted again when the vaccine was released,” Osborn said. “United Way of the Columbia-Willamette’s Vaccine Fund really helped us staff a program to ensure that these farmworkers were getting relevant, understandable and personal information about the vaccine.”
As a whirlwind of information came out about the COVID-19 vaccine, some accurate, some early and some inaccurate, The Next Door noticed and addressed a problem many of our Vaccine Fund partners also sought to fix. The information coming from government agencies and health organizations was offered in English almost exclusively, and when it did come in Spanish, it was not offered in a simple, personable way that they knew would encourage community members to learn.
“Getting information out that was accurate, reliable and understandable was challenging,” Osborn said. “That’s when we really leaned heavily on our community health worker base.”
These community health workers did more than provide information about the vaccine: they worked to reimburse gas expenses for those having to travel to a vaccine clinic, they held deep, trusting conversations with clients, provided an outlet for stress and promoted emotional wellness.
“Community health workers everywhere fill in an enormous gap in services and don’t get the recognition or compensation they deserve,” Osborn said.
As the pandemic continued to take its toll, it hit this group of community health workers especially hard. The Next Door started a program called Valle Verde that helped train them on mental health promotion, all in Spanish, while also recognizing that many community health workers themselves were struggling and burning out. They offered coping strategies, meditation and yoga so community health workers could continue doing their work to their best abilities.
“We work to make our community feel supported and empowered, to live the life they imagined and help them thrive. We’re neighborly, come next door and we can help,” Osborn said.
This open-door policy is what has made The Next Door one of the Gorge’s largest nonprofits, and what continues to inspire them to work. We were proud to partner with them, and know that through our collaboration we were able to help vulnerable communities become more resilient. Learn more about The Next Door at their website here.