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  • Taylor Dibbert

A Conversation with Vanesa, CHEER’s Empowerment and Leadership Program Director

I recently caught up with Vanesa Pinto; she started working at CHEER in 2014. Our exchange, which has been edited, is below.

How has the pandemic affected your work with CHEER?

The main impact has been in the workload that I have now. This is directly related with the difficult and even dramatic situation of many more community members in Long Branch. The hard living circumstances are in many cases, much more difficult now. Therefore, we had to extend our help to many more people. For example, we started our food distribution with 46 families in our list. Nowadays, we have around 400 families and we have more people asking for help every week.

Due to the staffing at CHEER, having more work also translates into more stress and sometimes a helplessness feeling for not being able to do more to help those who feel abandoned or isolated. These are immigrant communities from Central America, Africa or Asia, who already have experienced the indifference of society before the pandemic.

However, thanks to the pandemic, and in order to keep the connection with community members, we have been using preferred means of communication. So far, it seems that text messages and phone calls are the best ones. Since many parents had to learn to use the Zoom application to help their children with school, we have been able to organize more meetings. Before the pandemic, in-person meetings were difficult for community members due to them being held at inconvenient times, traffic, or not having anyone at home who can stay with the children.

The ones that are more connected, CONEXO members and some others that have been actively participating in other programs, are more aware of their neighbor’s wellbeing. Lately, there have been more stories of collaboration and help within them. This is even more important when someone loses a loved one due to COVID-19 or related complications. These examples represent the kind of outcome that I am looking for and the type of inspiration that we want.

What have you learned as a result of the pandemic?

We all know that this situation is unfortunately far from over. So far, one thing that I can see is how much everyone can do when you have a sincere desire to help others. As has happened before, it’s incredible that the ones that help and do more for others are the ones that have less or those who at the same time undergo difficult circumstances.

There is so much I have been learning about how creative people can be when they have an urgent problem to solve and how, intelligence and creativity, once again, it’s not dependent on your race, background, formal or economic situation.

Even worse than the pandemic virus, the indifference of some people is beyond my understanding. Gladfully, there have been many more good stories of collaboration and help in the community.

Sadly, the repercussion of problems that the pandemic is leaving clearly shows inequities and unfairness when it comes to statistics of unemployment and debt where the most vulnerable communities are suffering disproportionally.

How would you describe CHEER’s role in the community right now?

The approach that we use for our programs, is the Asset-based community development approach. Under this premise, we are the community partner’s in the work of finding a common agenda and goals toward the solution of problems that the community identifies as priorities.

I think we also want to be the catalyst of many ideas and initiatives from community members that could make a bigger impact solving communal problems. But the main impact could be in a more empowered community self-concept.

What are you looking forward to this year?

Ironically, in spite of the difficult circumstances we are currently living in, we have more connection with community members. The food distributions have been the connector. We see them weekly; they receive our text messages related to the week’s distribution. People send messages when unable to come and explain why, or when people ask for information about other resources.

The connection has been established, and we are cultivating the trust with, not only adults, but also youth in the community. Since we have gotten more resources to do case management, we will be in a better position to identify the people with highest needs and, to connect resources from other organizations or county and state institutions with those who really need them.

Conexo is the first community leaders’ group. We are working on promoting more leaders. Likewise, we are planning to encourage leadership in youth in Long Branch. We already are cultivating relationships and trust with a group of 25 teenagers. Soon, some of them could be leading any project that they would like to work on, as a response to a concern or an important need in the community.

We will continue using the asset-based community development approach in our programs and initiatives, since communities get built by seeing that the principal resource people have for the task as their gifts, skills, talents, and capacities. “Building strong neighborhoods becomes a matter of everybody contributing as many of their gifts as they can to each other and to the whole,” says John McKnight, co-founder of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute.

Mapping social capital and connecting individuals with better job opportunities or, why not, encouraging entrepreneurship and advocating for more accessibility and control of capital might be an ambitious goal, but there are experiences in other communities where it was possible to create change and improve a community’s quality of life.

Having more control over means of production is what could help CHEER’s effort for sustainable economic development in Long Branch. But more importantly, the community needs to have the means to cultivate capacity to produce their own well-being.


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