An American Red Cross worker is striving to connect with Spanish speakers in Nebraska and Iowa

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Photo by Kassidy Arena
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By Kassidy Arena, Nebraska Public Media

Entire neighborhoods were destroyed when a series of tornadoes ravaged their way through parts of Nebraska and Iowa last month.

People lost their homes and are now on the road to recovery. But one group of people faces additional struggles.

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Jessica Gutierrez stood in a classroom full of people during her presentation in Crete. She drove nearly 90 miles from Omaha to host the session on tornado preparedness in Spanish. She worked with Public Health Solutions District Health Department to organize the two-part presentation, the first part about home fire prevention and preparation.

Johanna Pesante-Daniel, Public Health Solutions health equity coordinator, said one of her concerns was that people might not know how to prevent home fires, especially with kids being home for summer break. She knew Gutierrez when the Red Cross employee was a community health worker and was excited to work with her again.

“Having someone who is able to speak Spanish will make the work a lot easier for us, so we won’t have to interpret,” Pesante-Daniel said.

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Attendees said the fact that Gutierrez ran the presentation in Spanish did have an impact. They felt comfortable sharing their own experiences with natural disasters, as well as asking questions about how to stay safe during them. At times, Pesante-Daniel and Gutierrez shared resources and tools available on sites like Amazon, but there weren’t proper Spanish translations for them online.

Photo by Kassidy Arena

In Crete, 41% of residents identify as Hispanic or Latino, and it’s important people hear public safety information in their own language, Pesante-Daniel added. She hopes Gutierrez’s presentation, which garnered quite a bit of engagement, will give community members more confidence to share public safety resources among one another.

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Gutierrez initially planned the presentation to discuss how to prepare for and avoid house fires, the most common type of emergency in the U.S., according to the American Red Cross. But she decided to add an entire section on tornados after hundreds of people in Nebraska and Iowa were impacted by the tornados in the region on April 26.

Although she wasn’t personally affected by the tornados, Crete resident Graciela Ramos Haro was glad she attended the presentation. She said as an older person who lives in an apartment and who is new to Nebraska, she didn’t know all the details about what to do during a tornado.

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“For me, it’s important because first, I am an older person and I want to know what I have to do,” she said in Spanish. “And further, I’m interested in this presentation about tornados because tornados are very devastating things. And yeah, they worry me.”

Gutierrez has been working to reach people like Ramos Haro in her role as community engagement and partnership manager for the American Red Cross of Nebraska and Iowa. She is one of 17 in the country to have the responsibility of working with diverse communities through the American Red Cross. Her region is all of Nebraska and Iowa.

“I’m the only bilingual…there are other people that speak some other languages, but not Spanish,” she said.

She works with many diverse communities, but focuses on organizations that primarily work with Hispanic and Latino populations.

Photo by Kassidy Arena

“At the beginning I was a little bit concerned because it’s like, nobody wanted to work with the American Red Cross, but it was because the community wasn’t really aware of what we do for the community as an organization,” Gutierrez said.

Part of her job is making sure people know the resources they can receive from the Red Cross, especially after natural disasters. But, it’s not as easy as it sounds.

“The American Red Cross mainly here in this region, they were concerned that many Hispanic, Latinos were declining services. So they were not accepting our services or that relief, that assistance,” she said.

Being from Mexico herself, she said often immigrants or other Spanish-speakers either don’t understand what the organization does, or they don’t trust them because in other countries, the Red Cross is sometimes perceived as an extension of state governments, which can be wrought with corruption.

“We, Latinos, many times are ignorant of how to ask for help or to whom to turn,” Ramos Haro added. “We are afraid because sometimes we don’t have papers, sometimes we don’t have money, so people are afraid that the Red Cross will charge them.”

Tornado Recovery

As the tornado recovery continues in the region, Gutierrez said she knows there were Spanish speakers who were impacted by the storms and saw posts on Facebook. She has been working to figure out where they are so the Red Cross can offer them support. Studies show Spanish speakers in the U.S. are more vulnerable to disasters given the language barrier and other inequities.

“This is essential information, information that people are not aware of,” Gutierrez said. “Like, how to be resilient, how to look for mental health assistance. It’s okay to ask for help, you know? Some people are afraid to do it.”

In Hispanic communities, there is often a stigma on seeking mental health support or a misunderstanding of mental illness.

Josh Murray works with Gutierrez as the regional communications director for the American Red Cross. He has no doubt that since she started working with him about 10 months ago, the organization has been able to reach more non-English speakers. He said they’ve been receptive to Gutierrez and the message she’s trying to share.

“I think part of that is also just her personality, her way,” he said. “We’ve had more fruitful conversations because she’s able to kind of connect with them, or maybe some that others have not been able to connect with before.”

Murray said he’s confident that before Gutierrez started, Latino and Hispanic people were missing out on some of the resources the American Red Cross can offer.

As of May 13, the American Red Cross of Nebraska and Iowa delivered nearly 500 meals and more than 1,750 food items to residents affected by the tornado and delivered more than 4,500 relief items including trash bags and cleaning supplies to more than 800 households.

According to organization records, it completed more than 1,600 home damage assessments in affected areas as well as served more than 325 individuals with recovery planning, health services and mental health support.

Photo by Kassidy Arena

Gutierrez said her goal is to have more bilingual volunteers within the organization. But more than just bilingual, she wants them to be bicultural as well. The American Red Cross does use an interpreter phone line for volunteers, but it’s different in person, according to Gutierrez. English volunteers have shared with her that even though they have the tool, it’s not the same as having someone who can speak Spanish when assisting clients.

She talked about her experience serving a family of Cuban immigrants in Beatrice who had suffered from a home fire in their apartment building. Red Cross volunteers responded to the fire by opening an emergency shelter and providing resources and food. But when the family wasn’t eating the Casey’s pizza and croissants provided, none of the volunteers could communicate properly to find out why. Gutierrez drove down to Beatrice to get to the bottom of things.

“The first person who saw me speak in Spanish, they were like, their eyes wide open inches, saying ‘Oh, finally a person who speaks Spanish,’” she remembered.

Gutierrez found out the family wasn’t eating because they were offered food they weren’t familiar with. They weren’t used to the taste of gas station pizza or French pastries. So, she acted as a liaison between the Red Cross feeding manager and lead volunteer as well as with a local restaurant to offer sometimes a little closer to home: a simple dish of rice and beans.

The family started eating.

“You need to understand what [are] their needs,” Gutierrez said. “Like, what [are] the cultural factors that can improve their wellness, their wellbeing and just finding a way they can feel comfortable.”

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