The PASOs Greenville team is only 3 out of a workforce that is 33,000 strong, yet they serve that entire workforce and thousands of Hispanic patients every year. Embedded in Prisma Health Upstate, they also act as a nexus in many cross-sector partnerships serving the Hispanic community. Yet, Guillermo Martinez, Sebastian Villacis, and Rut Rivera meet their Goliath-size challenge with compassion and culturally-responsive care.
COVID-19 put PASOs through a crucible of reduced hours and systemic barriers, and left one member fighting for her life. But crucibles often reveal the value of what they seek to consume, in this case, the team’s diverse individual strengths, their unbreakable cohesion, and faith in their partners to support their work from every side.
“Not being able to physically serve the Latino community is a great obstacle,” admits Guillermo. “It is not the same as the human warmth I feel when seeing and perceiving expressions.” That separation is daunting because his specialty is public benefit navigation. Many of his clients lack basic technology and English fluency. Guillermo guides them through government applications by phone, doubling the length of his already ballooning volume of calls. Guillermo’s toughest challenge was a woman with five children: “She can’t read, she can’t write, she’s out of work. We spent several hours...by phone and WhatsApp... and managed to connect her with several organizations.” With the number of impoverished and hungry families mounting, Guillermo can expect more of this type of challenge.
Sebastian’s warm smile and demeanor don’t reveal the losses he witnesses on a weekly basis. In March, Prisma Health reduced his and Guillermo’s work hours to cut costs. Now back full-time, Sebastian works at home and at the North Greenville Hospital, serving the most severe COVID-19 patients. He remembers a young mother who succumbed to COVID; she cared for the children so her husband could work. “Now this husband doesn’t have a wife anymore, has four kids at home, and has to work to maintain them all.” Sebastian is both a cultural translator and lifeline. “I don’t know how many people have me saved on their phone as ‘Sebastian from the Hospital,’ he laughs. He shares his number so patients can call when the pain of loss, anxiety of poverty, or isolation become too much.
“‘Ms. Rivera you have COVID, you have pneumonia...we’re going to send you to North Greenville.’” Rut Rivera , Manager of PASOs Greenville, was struggling so hard to breathe she thought she might die. Those words, however, truly terrified her. “I kept thinking of my kids. I watched my oxygen level going lower and lower, and my lips turning purple.”
Rut has helped lead at least 20 of Prisma Health’s community testing days, in full PPE, in grueling heat since April. Without PASOs on site as a trusted intermediary, the health community might not have caught the upsurge of COVID-19 in the Hispanic community in May. PASOs was a founding partner of Hispanic Alliance’s Canasta Básica* initiative, and Rut both helped to connect the project with additional funds for food vouchers, and came with Sebastian to hand them out personally.
Then in July, her whirlwind of energy faded to shallow breaths. “It was terrible,” Guillermo remembers, “... I did not expect that a young, strong Latina leader and warrior, una batalladora, would be directly affected by this virus!” Rut’s reaction to her grave illness was in character: “the experience helps me navigate the conversations with our families ...to explain the process.” She deeply empathizes with the fear her clients frequently express, and has emerged with an even stronger conviction that the Hispanic community no longer be an afterthought.
When the emotional and physical realities of their work become overwhelming, each individual knows to look to their trifecta to find their teammates ready to help. “We have a lot of solidarity,” Guillermo says, “We know that we can count on the support and strengths of each other.”
“When we get together, we laugh quite a bit!” Sebastian says. “We’re a tight team and share what’s going on without fear….” Rut maintains her mythic stamina by trusting her teammates implicitly. No matter how different each individual is, they are united in love for the people they serve.
Partnerships also create fuel for the team’s work. Sebastian supports internally, with the Prisma Health COVID-19 hotline, taking up 5-6 daily referrals a day. They also draw energy from making connections between health organizations serving the Hispanic population, and maintaining strong, trusting relationships with the people they serve. “Being that conduit helps out a lot,” Sebastian says. Rut also shares that the reciprocity PASOs received from organizations during the pandemic helped initiatives to evolve rapidly and opened doors to new relationships, such as a funding from with United Way. Tried and true partners such as the PASOs Promotores (volunteer health advocates), Hispanic Alliance, and Jesus El Rey, have literally stood beside PASOs in their work, whether at screening sites or relief initiatives. “Having those relationships already built made those things so much easier,” Rut explained.
PASOs Greenville reminds us that neither the skills nor resilience of any single team member can lift such crushing weight. Rather, the social physics of leaning on each other, and building up community collaborations, creates the broader base for the weight that no one can lift alone. PASOs, and all of us, are stronger together, a united whole greater than the sum of our parts.