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A Look Back at a Year of Covid

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Family Receives Academic and Citizenship Awards
Photo: Monte Hackney

In what has been a year of struggle and resilience for many, we look back on some of the ways the IRC in Charlottesville has adapted and remained committed to refugee families through this challenging time.

The impact of the pandemic hit the job market particularly hard.  Over the past twelve months, the Employment team assisted approximately 302 individuals through a mix of employment services that include job search assistance, resume preparation and job readiness training, frequent check-ins, and Covid related assistance.  In addition, staff helped with 150 unemployment and pandemic unemployment claims.  Approximately 80 clients went through a special Health and Safety training to learn how to stay safe at work during Covid.  

With social distancing in place, the Resettlement team had to alter practices dramatically while still offering families the support they need during their critical first months in the U.S.  Family Support Coordinator Mirna Dickey explains, "Covid has changed how we provide services to clients enrolled in the Intensive Case Management program.  We started doing weekly check-in calls with all clients about a year ago.  So, even though there is little in-person contact, our clients feel more connected than ever due to the frequency and intensity of our weekly interactions."  

Although Immigration Services has been unable to see clients in the office, they continue help them obtain green cards, U.S. citizenship, and unite with their family members at the same levels as pre-Covid.  How? Clients, as well as volunteers and interns from UVA and the Charlottesville community, adapted to changing technology and procedures with determination and patience, finding new methods to interact efficiently and confidentially.

In addition to in-person interpreting, Interpreter Services was fortunate to have established phone and video interpreting services just prior to the lockdowns. These services have been further expanded once distancing became necessary.  Both staff and clients have appreciated the option to connect to professional community interpreters on various video platforms. The unexpected challenges the pandemic brought have also allowed Interpreter Services to focus on promoting diversity and equity through the training and employment of immigrants and women and to add  new interpreters with rare language skills who live outside the local area, expanding capacity.

Youth programs have needed to get particularly creative. Monte Hackney, Youth Program Specialist, shares that the use of online platforms for Youth Futures meetings has made it easier to include students from county and city schools together in one virtual meeting space.  Later, this transitioned into in-person participation in outdoor and distanced events.  Awards were able to be handed out door to door, rather than at a public ceremony.  Even when in-person school and events become feasible again, Monte hopes to keep some of the positive interactions and instant electronic access enabled by online communication platforms such as working in breakout rooms, sharing real-time chats about the topic being covered in a zoom meeting, and virtually sharing an experience together, such as a virtual tour of a museum or college campus. 

The IRC matched refugee youth and their families with online tutors as programs adapted to work with students virtually.  Obviously, it is easy to feel what is missed by not meeting face to face, but it has been inspiring to see how people adapt.  Features such as screen sharing have enabled tutors to see assignments and share their own resources, and tutors are no longer restricted by commuting time and distance, so scheduling has become easier.

IRC's New Roots program has also adapted to serve its clients.  Participation in the Community Gardening program increased 42% in 2020, from 60 to 85 families, as people lost jobs and turned their efforts to growing their own food.  Participants reported that they had enough food for their immediate families as well as surplus to share with neighbors and friends outside of their household, including donations to local food pantries.  These actions and results highlight the important role that community gardening plays in family food security and building a resilient local food system.

While the IRC in Charlottesville eagerly anticipates the return of in person services and interactions, staff, clients and volunteers acknowledge that the innovative approaches learned over the past year will continue to impact our work as we prepare to receive more refugee families in the years to come.