Opinion: Finding the heroes in these uncertain times
–Children’s television host Fred Rogers, affectionately known as Mr. Rogers, once shared that his mother would encourage him to look for the helpers during a scary time. The COVID-19 pandemic has provided plenty of heroes here in San Luis Obispo County, from the teachers who are adjusting to online coursework to the first responders who are tasked with keeping us safe and healthy.
Everyday citizens have also stepped up to the call, filling in for at-capacity government leaders who have seen their own capabilities stretched. My position as Chair of the SLO County Democratic Party, allows me to often find inspiring community leaders putting in the work, and today, I’d like to share the story of a Paso Robles resident Yessenia Echevarria.
If you don’t know Yessenia, she has been a true force of nature in our county. Some of you might know her from her work at The Wellness Kitchen in Templeton, where she helped provide healing foods for those in need, or more recently Mujeres de Acción (formerly known as Mujeres de Éxito), a community advocacy organization helping Hispanic women navigate the uncertainties of breast cancer. Thousands have benefitted from her tireless work in both projects, which bridge the always-present resource gap.
It is with this experience that Yessenia stepped up for the challenges of 2020.
Helping through a crisis
Just after COVID-19 infected the first individual in SLO County, Yessenia rolled up her sleeves and went to work. Noticing that local government leaders were not offering sufficient COVID-19 information in Spanish, she created a Facebook group titled Información COVID-19/Condado de San Luis Obispo (COVID-19 Information/San Luis Obispo County) to authentically address the information gap that was affecting her community, this is how I met Yessenia. Among other things, she translated COVID-19 news into Spanish and shared translations of safety tips published by official sites.
The Facebook group has since crossed over 600 members. In addition to connecting concerned citizens, it also hosts webinars around mental and economic health while promoting civic engagement. As if managing a virtual platform built to help the Hispanic community was not enough, Yessenia also began fielding phone calls from families with different needs caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, from families with questions about the address of test sites to feeding those who were going hungry and had run out of options. To date, Yessenia’s can-do attitude moved her to help 1,275 families in need.
In doing all of this, Yessenia has become a voice for the forgotten. Those who tune into City Council meetings will often hear her fighting on behalf of the Hispanic community and challenging all leaders to make more of a concerted effort to ensure front-line workers are safe and accounted for.
Civic engagement for all
As the pandemic continued into the summer, the United States was also rocked by racial tensions brought on by the shocking video of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers. Though thousands of miles away, Paso Robles felt the reverberations, scaring minority populations in the process.
In response, Yessenia along with Carmen Bouquin, a Cuesta College student, and climate justice activist, co-founded Paso People’s Action. Paso People’s Action is a grassroots community group, working to invest in North County by dismantling systemic racism and starting a long-delayed conversation around racial justice. Once more, and thinking outside the box, Yessenia organized Chalk and Talks, sessions where the community comes together to draw with chalk messages of hope while talking about local issues. Since May, the topics have covered Hispanic Heritage Month, Native American justice, and voter registration, among others.
Yessenia has been able to create spaces online and offline that promote civic action, creating voter registration and civic education opportunities even sometimes bridging the gap between local political candidates and the community.
As we head into the new year, Yessenia’s leadership continues inspiring community members, such as Paso People’s Action founding members and Paso Robles residents Desiré Harris and Netta Perkins who are now spearheading school and homeless backpack drives, respectively. Already, more than 30 backpacks for the homeless have been handed out, these include blankets, non-perishable foods, and more.
Yessenia and the organized work done by Paso People’s Action is reason to be proud of our younger generations. Let’s help them close the year and start 2021 on a high note.
How can you join Yessenia and the community she’s working for?
Volunteer: Reach out to Yessenia at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We can make it through these challenging times if we work together. Let’s continue uplifting the voices of the helpers in our community.
–Written and submitted by Rita Casaverde, Chair of the SLO County Democratic Party