8/08/2011

Moving people from poverty to a different level


Gustavo Torres, executive director of CASA de Maryland
in conversation with Sharon Ford, a Health
Action Co-chair at Sligo Adventist Church

Meeting Gustavo Torres is a well-spent occasion. Last Saturday afternoon I had a few moments to talk to him for a story I was doing about my local church’s mega healthcare event in Langley Park, just a stone’s throw away from Takoma Park, Maryland, on the outskirts of Washington, D.C.

Gustavo Torres is executive director of CASA de Maryland, a community organization responding to the human needs of the thousands of mainly Central Americans arriving in the Washington, D.C. area after fleeing wars and strife in their countries of origin. He came to take a look and said it delighted him what he saw.

What he witnessed was what it seemed a long-awaited free healthcare event* with doctors, nurses, dentists and their assistants who were joined by social workers, community activists, puppeteers, face-painters, site guides, volunteers serving watermelon slices and other fresh fruit or pretzels, and the Steel Band from Sligo Church.

The man is an institution, and his passion for the drastically underserved, uninsured, legal and undocumented immigrants recently gave him a cover story in a July 17 issue of the Washington Post Magazine. His face is publicly recognized. Now, I can add him to my claim-to-fame collection of cool people I’ve met.

I liked what I heard. Together with his team they are building community, as he said, aiming “to move people from poverty to a different level.” And then, he gave me a few facts the real and acute needs in this multicultural community. Such partnership, as witnessed at the Health Fair was “extraordinary,” he said. It was “very essential, because 80 percent of the Latino and immigrant communities … have no access to healthcare, and now they are going to have an opportunity to receive it.”

The issues experienced by the community were expressed by a girl, perhaps ten or twelve, plumpish and feisty, who was not afraid to ask a policeman who was enjoying a healthy snack from a fruit and granola bars stand, what was he doing at the fair. “Did you come to arrest us? Are you going to arrest those men sitting on the wall ledge over there?” she asked. The officer, who represented a pedestrian safety unit, was happy to engage in a friendly exchange to appease her inquisitive mind.

Out of the community: Taking an opportunity to receive
health check-up.

Tensions and feelings of suspicion run high in this predominantly immigrant community about the unsolved immigration issues in the United States. Leaders at CASA de Maryland continue to push for resolution of the issue. Gustavo Torres commented on the efforts undertaken by his organization and community leaders to push for a positive social and legislative change for thousands of immigrants. For years the community has engaged in building a positive relationship with the local law enforcement, he said.

As he was observing dozens of activity areas at the Health Fair, Mr. Torres referred to members of the community as being under duress since many of them are being affected by the current anti-immigration rhetoric, decisions and actions. Citing the federal Secure Communities Program that deputizes the police to arrest immigrants who are undocumented, he calls it “a mistake.” The community he looks after is “very scared. They are very afraid of the police,” he comments. “We believe that this is a tremendous mistake from the administration. People are super scared.”

Puppets were in the groove with the steel band playing.
It helped them to put fun into health tips for children.

As I talked with others, one doctor told me that she is willing to step in on a regular basis to provide assistance to members of the community. Others concluded that it was a learning experience and that as a faith community “we need to get out of our own bubble, and do it often.”

As I got in the stride of things at the CASA de Maryland Multicultural Center on August 6, though I involved myself with a small reporters’ task, it turned into a rich experience with life-changing observations.

* The event several Adventist partners – Washington Adventist Hospital, Washington Adventist University and members of the Sligo Adventist Church. Its venue was a newly renovated McCormick-Goodhart Mansion, which is the headquarters home of the CASA de Maryland Multicultural Center in Langley Park.