The mission of Conexion Latina Newport is to educate, inform, mobilize, and advocate for all Hispanics in Newport, R.I., and to advise and partner with social services, education, and government agencies on how to best meet the needs of Newport’s Hispanic community. The organization is composed of a strong team of two, Rebekah Gomez and Yolanda Macias. Rebekah typically works from her computer as Executive Director whereas Yolanda is Conexion’s boots on the ground as the Director of Operations.
Rebekah and Yolanda co-founded Conexion Latina Newport in 2019 after encountering a story that perfectly encapsulates the type of experience the organization now exists to prevent.
“We have a friend who works locally as a Spanish teacher,” Rebekah says. ”One of her students who was a newcomer and doesn’t speak English, after missing three or four days of school, came to school with a beautifully written letter saying he had been sick and that’s why he wasn’t there. And so the teacher said, ‘I’m sorry that you were sick. This is a great letter, who helped you write it?’ And he told her ‘Oh, a friend of ours helped us write it. And he told us that if we didn’t bring a letter explaining why I was out, that we would probably be reported to immigration and would get in big trouble. And he only charged us 50 bucks for the letter.’ So that was kind of the straw that broke the camel’s back” she continues. “We decided we had to do something.”
As these experiences — and the underlying issues — presented themselves, CLN sought to remove these kinds of communication barriers that the Spanish-speaking community in Newport was facing, “What led us to found the organization is that there is a lot of mistreatment of the Hispanic community.” She continues, ”People were being terribly taken advantage of and being charged exorbitant amounts of money for services that are otherwise offered for free or for minimal amounts. On my end, I saw people going through the registration process to get a child into school and they were being charged a couple of hundred dollars, as much as $300 or $400, for someone to go with them and fill out their paperwork or answer questions on their behalf.”
From the start, Conexion Latina Newport’s intention was not to provide any one-on-one service or programming but to connect people to social services and education programs that already exist in the city of Newport. They were operating independently but unsurely. “We had no idea how to start an organization,” says Rebekah.
“Initially, we started out just wanting to bring the Latino community together and getting them to support each other.”
The SEG Connection
Luckily, before long, Conexion Latina Newport met up with Juan Carlos Payero, who at the time was SEG’s Newport Program Director and who invited them to apply for SEG’s Incubator early in 2020. Joining the SEG Incubator helped Rebekah understand the labor that would need to be done to turn their idea into a full-fledged organization. She says, “At first I thought, I’m not ready for this. I can’t come up with a business plan. I don’t know how to come up with a budget.” But then, as she engaged with the material and worked alongside other program participants, she found her feet.
“The Incubator was eye opening and it gave us insight into what we were going to have to start working on, which was good,” she says. “And it really helped to solidify what we were doing. It just kind of planted the seeds. And then as we kept going, I understood what we needed to do.”
After COVID-19 struck with full force in March 2020, a state response soon followed with benefits to lessen the blow of pandemic-related economic consequences. Unfortunately, populations such as under-documented individuals were left out — something Conexion Latina Newport was quick to notice. “The federal government and even the state were handing out rental assistance and giving people an extra $300 to $600 in their unemployment check or increasing their SNAP benefits,” says Rebekah. “Our people don’t and couldn’t qualify for any of those benefits. They’re not getting unemployment at all — they’re getting zero, much less an extra $600. So they were really in tough shape.”
Fortunately, many organizations and local leaders wanted to help and came to Conexion Latina Newport to learn where to invest their resources. They temporarily adapted their strategy from being a resource for connecting people to being more hands-on. “When COVID first hit in the spring, for six weeks, we delivered grocery store gift cards and food to the homes of over 200 people to help support them,” says Rebekah. “We did two or three rounds of rental assistance for people who were not able to pay their rent. It ended up being a lot more hands-on than we had expected it to be initially, but that was fine. We were able to make really good connections and build trust and respect within the community as well as in the city.”
Conexion Latina Newport values listening to the community to hear what it is that people need. After the pandemic began and vaccines became available, Rebekah and Yolanda often heard that many people in the Newport Spanish-speaking population were having trouble accessing COVID-19 testing, so they partnered with the National Guard to set up a test clinic that’s been running weekly since March of 2020.
The next challenge was to expand access to vaccinations. In April 2021, they teamed up with the City, the State, Chief of the Newport Fire Department, and the Edward King House to host a pop-up vaccine clinic with 500 vaccines from the Department of Health. “We had to pull it together really fast,” states Rebekah. “We got about 380 people vaccinated with the first dose and we gave out the second doses at the end of May. It was amazing. We had restaurant workers who had to run down to get their vaccinations while on break and then go immediately back to work, which was very heartwarming to see.”
In addition to responding to COVID-related needs, Conexion Latina acts as a directory service for the Spanish-speaking community in Newport, steering people toward the right offices or organizations to access resources. It’s not uncommon for Rebekah and Yolanda to be providing direct support for individuals with urgent needs. Recently, for example, Yolanda received a call from a woman who had just given birth and her baby had passed away. “She called me,” says Yolanda, “and she was still in the hospital. She didn’t know what to do. And I said, ‘No worries, we want to take care of you. We’re going to help you go through this process. We’re going to get you a funeral. We’ll interpret necessary services for you. And we’ll organize with the church.’ Because,” Yolanda added “what are you going to do if you don’t speak English? Who’s going to help you?”
Locals seem to know that if anyone will, it’s Conexion Latina Newport.
Now, Conexion Latina Newport is taking advantage of SEG’s program pipeline to grow, by becoming a member of SEG’s 2021 Spring Accelerator cohort. Yolanda has joined the 12-week Accelerator, and together she and Rebekah are developing strategies to take the organization to the next level. “I jump in every once in a while when I can, although I’m still working full time,” says Rebekah. “And I help out — we do the homework together, we go to our SEG Advisor together, we work together. But she’s the one that’s sitting in on the classes and taking in the information.”
When asked what advice they’d give to other aspiring social entrepreneurs, Rebekah says, “I think there’s no easy way out. I think that you really have got to do it right and you need to do the work.” When Yolanda adds that she has noticed from her time in the SEG Accelerator that “all organizations are born out of love or pain,” Rebekah agrees: “It’s our love of doing this work and it’s our community’s pain, the unfortunate suffering that they’re going through while living in our city. Matching those two things together so that we might be able to relieve some of that hardship is all worth it.”
By Melissa Pineda Brown
SEG Community Outreach & Communications VISTA