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Amsterdam's Centro Civico struggles to connect with community during COVID-19 shut down

Amsterdam's Centro Civico struggles to connect with community during COVID-19 shut down

Amsterdam's Centro Civico struggles to connect with community during COVID-19 shut down
Alberto Beltran, a program director at Centro Civico, uses hand sanitizer before sitting down to check voice mail.
Photographer: Jason Subik/Gazette Reporter

AMSTERDAM -- After applying hand sanitizer, Alberto Beltran sat down at the front desk at Centro Civico Thursday morning and typed in the code for the nonprofit's voicemail system.

He was met with silence, no voicemails saved.  

Beltran works as the organization's building director, information technology person and as the director of its Housing Development program. It's been his job to check Centro Civico's voicemail since the organization decided on Tuesday to shut down its offices as a form of social distancing to help stop the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. 

Beltran said that on a typical day Centro Civico would have 25 to 50 people walk into the organization looking for help, either with English to Spanish translations, legal assistance or help navigating New York state's social safety net, but during the two days of shutdown, nobody's called to leave a message.

Beltran said he doesn't know what the normal clientele of Centro Civico is doing without the organization. 

"That's a good question, that's why I'm still coming in every day," he said. "I think our community members are listening to what the government is saying, and they're just waiting it out, to see what happens. I did have one community member come in physically. He was in the park with his son, and he had that desperate  — What do we do? What help is there? I'm not working now because they won't let me — look on his face. Unfortunately I had to tell him right now we're just trying to follow orders from above." 

Marinés Espinoza, senior director of operations for Centro Civico, said her organization decided it needed to close Tuesday morning following Montgomery County's emergency declaration last Sunday and Gov. Andrew Cuomo's escalating social distancing directives.

Espinoza said Centro Civico has posted a hotline on its front door, encouraging members of the Latino community in need of the organization's translation services or other programs to call 518-842-3762. She said the organization's program directors are still working from home and are available via phone or the web-based video conferencing tool Zoom. 

Espinoza said she's been surprised no one has tried to access Centro Civico programs since the shut down. 

"Usually our doors are always open and consumers come in for a variety of needs, but since Friday it's been very, very slow," she said. "We have not even had people calling and saying 'I'm really concerned. What do I do? How do I protect my children? What resources are out there in the community that I can acess?' — that has not been as we expected it to be. Are they receiving the information through other means, or are they just being conscientious about staying home?" 

Beltran said it's possible many of the Centro Civico community members who don't have strong English skills may be receiving their news from the Spanish-language Telemundo TV network, which he said typically does a good job reporting on statements from Gov. Cuomo and other state news. 

How would English to Spanish translation services work without face-to-face contact? Espinoza said she's working on that problem.  

"We would help assess exactly what the need is, and if it is within our parameters to accommodate that need, and if not it would be a matter of communicating or referring to further support," she said. 

In addition to English-to-Spanish translation services and legal assistance, Centro Civico, which has a $2.5 million budget and about 18 employees in Amsterdam, also serves as a drop-off kiosk location for Project Needle Smart, which allows people to dispose of hypodermic needles and syringes within a container.

The containers can be any kind of plastic container, like detergent or shampoo, that can be sealed with tape over its cap. The phrase "Contains Sharps" is required to be written on the tape.

Espinoza said people who would normally drop off the "Contains Sharps" needle containers should now drop them off at St. Mary's Hospital's Amsterdam Memorial Campus on Route 30 or the Amsterdam Housing Authority at 52 Division St. Centro Civico had been providing this service for people from Amsterdam as well as Fulton County, Schenectady County and Albany County, collecting between 50 and 100 containers per month. 

Espinoza said starting on Monday Centro Civico staff will be assisting the Greater Amsterdam School District, which is offering "grab and go" meals to its students during the school shutdown, currently set to last until March 31. 

GASD has scheduled the meals to be offered from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. to be distributed from:
• Amsterdam High School 
• Lynch Literacy Academy 
• Tecler Elementary School 
• United Presbyterian Church on Market Street.

Espinoza said Fabrizia Rodriquez, a lawyer and the director of Centro Civico's Legal Defense Project, is assisting about 100 Centro Civico community members navigate the legal system, particularly in immigration matters. 

Espinoza said Centrol Civico has the financial backing of its parent organization the Ibero-American Action League, headquartered in Rochester, which should give it enough capital resources to continue to pay all of its employees during the shutdown period, at least for now. She said Centro Civico also operates a daycare in Albany with eight employees, which has been shut down. 

"We will be compensating the staff during this time, we understand is not voluntary — they aren't choosing not to come in — it's just a matter of responding to the state of emergency," she said.

However, Espinoza said if the shutdown goes on for too long, the financial strain on Centro Civico could force a re-evaluation of how many employees it can continue to pay. She said most of the revenues for Centrol Civico come from several state grant programs, which are based on usage.


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