The impact of violence ripples and rips throughout the community, says Ximena Ospina-Todd, Director of Community Stability and Support Services at Latino Network, a Portland-based nonprofit that works to positively influence the lives of Latinx youth, families, and communities throughout Multnomah County.
“It’s not just the person who receives the bullet and their family who’s hurt,” she said. “It’s the community that’s hurt. And there’s no community violence that doesn't impact us all — especially people who are marginalized.”
Ospina-Todd is a leader in the Community Healing Initiative (CHI), a partnership between Multnomah County, Latino Network and POIC + Rosemary Anderson High School designed to reduce disparities experienced by Black, Latinx and other youth of color in the juvenile justice system, prevent and reduce youth violence, and increase community safety. For more than a decade, Latino Network and POIC + Rosemary Anderson High School have served as community pillars in CHI and a refuge for families — some reeling from violence or any combination of stressors that take an immense toll on families.
It can be tough during a normal year for youth and their families, let alone the extraordinary year 2020 was and 2021 is shaping up to be. The litany of crises only began with COVID-19 — and for some, culminated in unspeakable pain.
“2021 has been bringing new challenges, not only for the families that we serve but our entire community,” said Alejandra Galindo, CHI Program Manager at Latino Network.
Last summer, a group of young adults were in the parking lot in the Cully neighborhood, Ospina-Todd recalled. There was a shooting and a young woman, age 21, died.
CHI connected with and supported the family of the victim. Then, the program got another call from a mom whose young children witnessed the shooting.
“They were playing in the parking lot at 10 p.m. at night and they witnessed all of it in front of their eyes,” Ospina-Todd said.
The mother of those children had recently lost her job at a local fast food restaurant because her children were so overwhelmed by the violence they saw.
“Her kids were so traumatized and couldn't sleep at night,” said Ospina-Todd. “We had just helped the victim’s family a few weeks before, and then the witnesses. We don’t even begin to comprehend the levels of impact it can have. There are moments that we were grieving with them and with the Juvenile Services Division.”
Latino Network and CHI serve as a clearinghouse of much-needed services for youth and families who have been affected by violence. The work has been bolstered by investments approved by the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners last summer, with increased culturally specific parent mentorship, shelter placements for youth experiencing family violence, tailored curriculum for youth and parents, and more. Families may also be connected to health and human services.
Over the last year, some services, like parent groups sessions with therapists, guest speakers and mentors, have gone virtual. Families also receive help with rent, energy assistance, diapers, food and orders from Instacart, face masks, cleaning supplies, and internet access. The CHI program also provides computers, basketballs and basketball hoops, jump ropes, art supplies, and even Legos delivered to homes.
Before the pandemic, CHI families participated in summer programs, like trips to the beach and swim centers, and other community gatherings. Without those opportunities, the Community Healing Initiative has relied heavily on creativity and doing everything possible to keep kids and families engaged close to home, a challenge considering the fact that many families live in intergenerational households where space and privacy is limited.
“There’s a lot of noise and interruptions,” said Ospina-Todd. “So we got folks headphones for them to hear without having to have everyone hear and interrupt. So really crafting spaces or helping people craft the space that’s best for them.”
The convergence of trauma, stress and increased time at home has been daunting. For some families, the pandemic experience has been further complicated by fear and a distrust of government and vaccines.
“We have experienced all of those feelings,” said Galindo. “And our youth are tired. They don’t know what to do. And sometimes the environment at home is not the best environment. When they could go out they had an outlet, a break from that.”
Yet amid seemingly unending challenges, there are stories of resilience. Mentors continue to check in with youth and families on a weekly basis. Consistency is key, Galindo says. Meetings occur every week at the same day and same time.
And even if a youth misses an appointment or does not respond to messages, “we don’t give up,” said Galindo. “Don’t give up.”
Every year, there are a series of celebrations where youth and parents gather. Before COVID-19, said Ospina-Todd, “moms would be there selling tamales and dads would be there after work.”
Seeing parents and youth sing and laugh together, said Ospina-Todd, “I call it generational joy.”
While many of these events cannot occur in person, CHI staff continue to work tirelessly and creatively to make and maintain connections.
“We’ve been talking in our team meetings about vicarious trauma, but there’s also vicarious resilience,” said Ospina-Todd. “And if this year has shown us anything, it's that we’re resourceful, that we rely on each other and survive. Hope is on the horizon.”