Marlen Benitez

Seeing communities suffer from the effects of COVID-19 and the massive potential in young people to mitigate the spread of the virus, the City of Houston created the Community Health Education Fellows (CHEF) program. The CHEF program hires young people to be trained as community health workers and contact tracers. They work in 22 Houston super-neighborhoods identified as most affected by COVID-19. We interviewed the first CHEF cohort to gain insight into some of the community work they are doing in the coronavirus pandemic. Read more CHEF stories.

Marlen is a 25-year old mother of twins representing the Acres Homes neighborhood in the first cohort of CHEFs. We interviewed Marlen about her perceptions of the pandemic and her experiences as a CHEF. Below is a transcript of our conversation.

Tell me a bit more about yourself and your experiences during the pandemic.

I am 25 years of age, and I have a degree in Biology and International Studies from the University of St. Thomas. I’ve always been interested in the health disparities between minority communities, especially since my parents are immigrants from Mexico.

Since I was little, I saw the disparities between those with different incomes and of different races. I got interested in the CHEF program because I noticed that the Acres Homes community needs a lot of help with getting info about COVID, how to protect themselves and how to get resources that they need, especially since the majority of the population works and is unable to work from home.

Children usually are just in school and then their parents pick them up. But right now with COVID, we've seen a lot of children being impacted, especially since they don’t have their parents at home and no internet for homework assignments. Also, getting information about the health care needs of the community has been very difficult, and I noticed a disparity about getting the information to Hispanics. A lot of the information is in English, but  not a lot of information gets around to the Hispanic people, even the churches that I live around in Acres Homes. We get the information mostly through “Univision” or “Telemundo.” I was thinking this [CHEF] was a great opportunity to get involved and especially get the word out to Hispanics. 

This pandemic has really impacted me. One, because there was a death of a family friend who died from COVID. She might’ve contracted COVID while she was in the hospital. She had a stroke back in June. During her hospitalization, she got COVID, we were thinking by either a nurse that was treating her or another healthcare facility member. She was just buried this past week, so, COVID in general has hit home. Other than that, COVID has also impacted us [my family] financially. After I graduated, it was very hard to find a job. I was blessed to find this fellowship, but before that I either had to work remotely or be displaced, and like a lot of other people, I couldn't find a job. Also, my husband was only getting one source of income and since we have twins, it was kind of difficult juggling financial means and having to raise my twins.

Other than that, my twins are almost two years old and they're not getting any social interaction from going to parks and playing with other kids, or going to the library. They're missing out. All they can do really is just be home and watch TV and I don't think that's healthy for them. But what else can we do to maintain their health? I can't really go out either because I'm immunocompromised.

What does a typical day as a CHEF look like?

My day starts around 8:30AM or 9AM. I just get my agenda set up to see what I need to do for my community. Then we check-in at 9:30AM to see what we want to do that day. They call it a “temperature check” to see where we are with the community and what else we need. Right now, I’m planning town hall meetings for Acres Homes. Typically, planning goes from 9:30AM all the way to 3:30PM. We have that time to communicate with other individuals, organizations, and institutions to see what resources are available for our community. It's not structured, so we have those almost seven or so hours for ourselves to plan what to do. I usually just divide it upon seeing what resources we need. Who can I call, can I set up an appointment? Aside from Acres Homes, I’m also doing a report for what the 22 super neighborhoods need and how they differ in the need for resources, or overall how they have been impacted.

How do you think you see this pandemic differently as a young person?

I am midway between young people and people that are transitioning into “adulthood,” so I have seen it from two perspectives. On one hand, you're dealing with transitioning, big milestones, and education…it’s affecting a lot of us that way. Also, I think our experience with jobs, income, opportunities, and also health is different. We’re also not able to have the social unity that we used to. [Pause]

I really miss my friends from college. I feel blessed that I have my husband and my kiddos with me, but my friends, for example, are not able to see each other a lot. It saddens me that they're not able to see friends and family members. From an older, transitioning mindset, it's kind of difficult finding a job to work from home with. It's also pretty difficult managing stress from wondering when COVID will end, but I’m glad I am able to be with my kiddos. 

What have you learned about your community and yourself this summer? 

For my community, there's a lot of things. It sometimes seems that we're not unified but word of mouth gets along pretty fast for us…I’m trying to find out the idiom in English, but in Spanish it’s “cada granito de arena“ meaning like every little pebble in the sand. So, if we work together, it makes a huge effect. There's a lot of resources that I didn't know about that are available for the community. If we actually share those resources, how many more people would be helped? 

Personally, I've grown mentally. This fellowship has brought on a lot of stress. I’ve had to learn how to manage stress and understand that although doors are going to be closed, there's other doors that are going to be open. Also, knowing our limitations, but also areas that we can grow has been important.

I’ve also learned to be more flexible in communication. I’m learning different communication skills to work with different people in their community. Sometimes we’re not given those opportunities to talk with people and now, because of this pandemic, I’ve come to know how to deal with people that are different by educational backgrounds, ways of living, and also disabled people. I’ve learned how to get to know different people, so that's an amazing thing. 

What information from the CHEF curriculum or elsewhere was key for your community and what information is it lacking?

What is COVID, what is the virus, how do we protect ourselves, and how do we disseminate information. That's been pivotal. Also, we learned about a different way of interviewing called motivational interviewing. Whenever we engage in communication with individuals and try to help them change their perspective about something, we learned that it's sometimes not the greatest to just tell them to do this or do that or change this or that. It has to come from within them. Also, I’m realizing that people that don't have educational backgrounds can also make a lot of difference, rather than just relying on those that do. I’ve also learned how to obtain resources and how to call different organizations to get those resources for the people, being a liaison for those for the community members and other big organizations.

Do you think there's anything else we should know?

If young people such as ourselves can make time to help our communities, it's very rewarding to step up to the task and the responsibility. Sometimes it seems as though we may not be able to change anything, especially with the pandemic and how closed off we are living in different houses and not being able to socialize. But at least if we get the information out there, however we can, it is very rewarding. We don’t have the doctorate degrees or masters degrees yet, but at least we can help out and do our part in this fight against COVID. It may seem that a lot of our things are not structured and we have to do it like individualized work. It's daunting at first, just to be thrown out and not being able to know how to do a lot of things, but it's okay to make mistakes and it's okay if someone hangs up on you. [Laughs] It's okay. Just keep trying.


Shift Press will be posting a series of interviews with the CHEF Fellows. Read more interviews here, and follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to stay updated when we post new content. 

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