Mental Health Initiative Offers Hope For People Struggling Through COVID

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Andres Espinosa, Minerva Perez and Anna Cuffe of OLA's Project Hope, on Long Beach inn Sag Harbor on Tuesday. MICHAEL HELLER

It’s not a secret that people have been struggling to cope through the pandemic, and that fallout from the virus has hit certain groups of people particularly hard. The needs that have arisen within communities are often predictable — food, housing, access to medical care, employment — but for many people, finding help isn’t always easy.

OLA of Eastern Long Island is intent on changing that.

The Latino advocacy group recently was approved for up to $1.9 million from a FEMA-funded state initiative, administered through the New York State Office of Mental Health, to be a provider of Project Hope, New York State’s Covid-19 emotional support helpline.

The funding enabled OLA Executive Director Minerva Perez to hire 16 crisis counselors, two team leads and two coordination staff from the East End community, to provide free, confidential and anonymous counseling to people in need.

Perhaps most importantly, the group is representative of the diverse East End community as well — there are men and women, who are Black, Latino, white and Shinnecock, speaking English, Spanish and Portugese. They are equipped with phones and tablets, ready to handle calls from clients that come their way. Each counselor is assigned to a particular area of the East End, typically where they have the most expertise or experience, although Ms. Perez said that pairing people in need with counselors doesn’t always fall strictly along those town or community lines. Rather, they try to pair clients with counselors they feel can best meet their specific needs.

“We’re very excited and proud to be able to do this,” Ms. Perez said, adding that the more she learned about the state initiative, the more she was interested in being part of it. “I learned that it was predicated on building resiliency in the communities that have been most impacted by this crisis. We need to be strong and help each other and get through this, and I wanted to hire people that really know their communities and are fully representative of who we are on the East End.”

Project Hope is predicated on what Ms. Perez said is an evidence-based approach that shows the benefit of having trained counselors listen to people in need and offer referrals and resources that can help them. OLA has an extensive database of resources and contacts, many of them hyper-local, helping them send clients in the right direction so they can directly access support for whatever their particular needs may be.

The initiative is still in its early stages, but project coordinator Andres Espinoza said certain themes have emerged already. Access to food has been the biggest need so far, he said, followed by housing concerns and the need for medical assistance. Through it all, however, is the common thread that people are struggling emotionally, and keeping that in mind is important for Mr. Espinoza and all the counselors.

“I had a client who called the line that I remember very well,” Mr. Espinzoa said. “I talked to this person, and transferred the call to a counselor. I asked the counselor for feedback later, and they said he said, ‘I wanted to talk to someone because I was struggling, and you were there for me.’”

“Those are the kind of calls we get,” Mr. Espinoza continued. “Single moms, people who’ve lost their jobs, or just people who are only looking for someone to talk to and listen and say, everything is going to be OK. We’re here to help you. Active listening is really important in what we do.”

Ms. Perez describes Mr. Espinoza as the “glue” who holds the Project Hope operation together. The Montauk resident and father, who came to the states by way of Colombia, has an MBA and years of experience in the business world spent traveling the globe. He said that more than a decade of living that fast-paced lifestyle left him feeling empty, and that running Project Hope has given him a sense of purpose he was missing in his career.

Mr. Espinoza coordinates the schedules for the counselors, creates the global schedule for the team, and pairs clients with counselors, a big logistical responsibility that he is uniquely qualified to handle because of his business background.

Ms. Perez and the rest of the team with Project Hope are now busy trying to get the word out about the helpline and the project’s desire to reach every corner of the east end community.

“We’re trying to make sure we’re linking up with organizations and people we don’t typically on a regular basis, such as the veteran community or the elderly community,” she said. “There are people who might be in isolation, or they don’t want to burden their kids with their problems. With this project, you can tell a stranger, who will listen, and it’s safe.”

The diversity of the group of 20 counselors reflects that commitment. OLA’s website includes photos and bios of every crisis counselor, and every effort is made to connect clients with the counselor who will best suit their needs.

Anna Cuffee joined the ranks of counselors for Project Hope after being referred by Lisa Votino, to ensure there was representation from the Shinnecock Nation. Ms. Cuffee is a full-spectrum indigenous birth worker, and is also a mother, meaning she can relate to a variety of experiences in a unique and valuable way. She made the important point that the pandemic hasn’t just created challenges for people — in many instances, it has exacerbated them.

“I do think that the crisis has disproportionately affected certain groups,” she said. “But I also believe that a lot of these groups we speak of were already going through their own crisis before this hit. For example, on Shinnecock we have a lack of communication and help between our community and the elders, which in turn is giving them a rough time on top of experiencing isolation.”

Ms. Cuffee added that lack of transportation has been a big issue for many women, and said that expectant mothers have also been struggling, as they’ve been trying to keep up with ever changing policies and restrictions at hospitals and health care facilities.

The Project Hope initiative has an end date of June 15, but Ms. Perez said she’s hoping there will be a path forward to continue the work after that date, because she anticipates the need will still be there. She said that aside from the main goal of helping people in immediate crisis, Project Hope has also helped shed more light and clarity on problems people are facing across the East End.

“Having this team of 20 has allowed us to learn even more about what the trends might be, or where the gaps are,” she said, adding that OLA had already been working on securing a grant for a mental and emotional health initiative focused on adolescence in the community. The work that’s being done through Project Hope is way to illustrate the need for more initiatives that follow that mutual-aid, community-based model targeted for specific groups.

“Right now, with Project Hope, it’s a moment for us to say that we can do more, and there’s more we can learn,” Ms. Perez said, adding that while OLA is a Latino advocacy group, the organization is committed to helping all people in need across the East End.

For more information about Project Hope, call 631-500-0837 or visit olaofeasternlongisland.org/project-hope.

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