The Latinos in Virginia Empowerment Center is a longstanding local organization that works to help victims of domestic violence. Since the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, though, they have been taking on more challenges facing Central Virginia’s Latino community.
“Sorry, I don’t speak Spanish.” It’s a phrase that the Latino community is all too familiar with in the United States. Language barriers are an obstacle that the Latino community has to work around on a daily basis. Normally, it’s just a mundane obstacle when asking for directions, or maybe a specific product. But when that obstacle is placed between a domestic violence victim and the help they need, it makes things that much more difficult.
Gabriela Telepman, an outreach and volunteer coordinator with The Latinos in Virginia Empowerment Center (LIVE Center), said that they strive to not have any Spanish speaking victims hear “I don’t speak Spanish” when they’re seeking services. “Our agency is the first and only victim service agency in the state of Virginia that can guarantee all of its services are provided by not only bilingual, but also trained bicultural advocates,” Telepman said. “This is how we build trust with our clients.”
The LIVE Center’s mission is to provide education, advocacy, and support to Spanish speaking individuals in Virginia who are affected by violence and injustice, in order to ensure that they can access services empowering them to become happy, healthy, and self-sufficient. The organization started out as a grassroots initiative in 2008 with the goal of overcoming these obstacles. Since then, they have been a beacon for those who are victims of domestic violence but come across a language barrier when seeking help.
While they most commonly deal with domestic violence, their services are also extended to sexual violence, human trafficking, harassment, child abuse, hate crimes, or any violence that may cause trauma.
But now, the LIVE Center is doing even more to build trust with clients. The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately been affecting the Latino community in Virginia. This has forced LIVE Center to go a more virtual route with some of its services, through things like their Facebook page. But more than that, they have been stepping up to an increased need of help that is beyond domestic violence.
One of the ways they’ve been active during the pandemic has been supplying food to clients experiencing food shortages. According to Telepman, LIVE Center saw the need arise around March, and they have since started a food pantry consisting of culturally appropriate non-perishable food items.
Elvira De la Cruz, CEO and senior advocate of LIVE Center, made a point that the items donated to the food pantry should be culturally appropriate, or the instructions need to be in Spanish.
De la Cruz recalled a moment years ago when another shelter asked for her assistance with a Spanish-speaking client. “When I went to talk with this lady and talk with the people in the shelter, they were surprised that this lady was saying that they were not providing food,” she said. After looking into the situation, De la Cruz soon found the problem.
“What I find out is they are providing food, and in the shelter she even had a cabinet with her name labeled on it, but when we opened it there were a lot of microwavable foods,” she said. “Nobody took the time to explain to this lady that that was food and they can prepare that, because we as Latinos, especially this lady that I’m talking about… make it from scratch. And when she was going to the kitchen and opened the cabinet, she only saw boxes.”
That is why LIVE Center feels it is so important to get culturally appropriate foods. De la Cruz said that it’s a great feeling to have someone come to a pantry and see something that they’re comfortable with. “It’s not just giving food to the bellies, it’s also feeding the souls,” she said.
Items that would be beneficial include, but are not limited to: Beans, rice, Maseca, seasonings, adobo, and sofrito.
LIVE Center has also been helping Latino people who have been financially impacted due to the pandemic through a new financial assistance program that started between May and June. The funds provided through this program are separate from the assistance given to victims of domestic violence.
In addition to all of the services that they are now providing, LIVE Center has also been collaborating with other organizations, working earlier this year with Diversity Thrift’s Viva! RVA! Food Drive. LIVE Center is now looking to help again in a second food drive.
They are also collaborating with Sylvia’s Sisters, whose mission is to provide quality feminine hygiene products to disadvantaged girls and women. LIVE Center has partnered with them to help supply feminine products, including pads, liners, and tampons, to disadvantaged people in the Latino community.
“Period products cost money, and if people are struggling for food, they’re definitely also struggling to buy expensive things like tampons and pads,” Telepman said. “But that’s an essential item, just as food is, because every woman gets her period.”
LIVE Center has been putting stickers inside these feminine hygiene products. “These stickers have our helpline and then the statewide helpline, and then a little blurb about how if you or someone you know needs help or is in a violent situation, please call — in both English and Spanish,” Telepman explained. “We put them in the package themselves so they’re not displayed right when you see the bag, in case a victim is taking them home in the house where she lives with her abuser. We don’t want the abuser to know that she’s trying to get out of the situation.”
With all of these new services that LIVE Center is providing, the collaborations with Diversity and Silvia’s Sisters, as well as a huge influx in calls reporting domestic violence LIVE Center has actively been looking for more volunteers.
De la Cruz said while they would happily take any volunteers for indirect work, what LIVE Center really needs are bilingual and bicultural volunteers to help victims of domestic violence.
“Advocates here and the helpline are taking more hours working with those clients. I need more people to answer the phone. My accountant is running more checks, so that costs more,” she said. “We are so happy to have made this work for our community, but also we need to increase the bilingual staff here, and we need to increase the operation.”
There are three levels of volunteers, each with their own free training that LIVE Center will provide that is standard across Virginia. The first level volunteers are people that would help around the office and help victims of domestic violence indirectly. This level requires minimal training, but the next two require significantly more.
“The extra training is needed because in order to deal with a domestic violence case and understand all of that trauma… you need to learn about domestic violence — different types of violence, and what that is,” Telepman said.
Volunteers with the proper training can partake in a program called “defensores comunitarios,” or “community advocates,” in which trained members of the Latino community are then able to empower each other from within to better serve victims of violence.
“They’ll take our training and then they’ll go out in the community and talk about our services. [That way], they’ll be able to help maybe their friend, or their family member, or a mutual friend overcome their obstacles and develop a safety plan,” Telepman explained. “We’re trying to distribute our knowledge and our resources throughout our community, not be selfish and restricted to just, ‘you have to come to our organization.’ We want everyone to be able to know how to overcome their own issues.”
De la Cruz stressed that it’s very important for these high-level volunteers to be both bilingual and bicultural, so that no one seeking help ever has to hear “sorry, I don’t speak Spanish” again.
“We have opportunities for everybody,” De la Cruz said. “We have volunteers that are just English speakers… but for [those who are] in touch with clients directly, we want people that are bilingual, that can speak the language, and bicultural.”
Level three volunteers can help with answering the phone and helping victims. There are some volunteers available to take the overflow of calls, but LIVE Center could use the extra help, especially since they plan to expand their availability by phone.
“Right now we have our helpline operating Monday through Friday during business hours, because we only have three people on our staff to answer the phone,” said Telepman. “But we are expanding that into a 24-7 hotline, because we have seen a need. We have seen people call after hours, we have seen people call on the weekends, and we don’t want these calls to go to waste. We don’t want an emergency to be happening and not be able to respond appropriately.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with domestic violence, please call (804) 658-3341.
All Photos via Latinos In Virginia Empowerment Center