This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
EEDC: Aren’t you one of only a few agencies providing services to a multi-cultural population in Talbot County?
Matthew Peters: We’re the only organization that focuses specifically on the uniqueness of the immigrant experience and the unique obstacles and challenges that come with newcomers to our community. We support immigrants, primarily Hispanic immigrants, but immigrants from any country. And we just want to make sure that we’re addressing those unique needs in our community to get them up and going.
EEDC: What special concerns are you seeing impacting the immigrant community at this time?
Matthew Peters: Immigrants already have a tough hill to climb, regardless of any other additional factors. You always have a struggle climatizing to a new culture, especially a new language. In many cases, documentation, the whole legal process, legal status, everything like that can be huge obstacles. So, for many of the families, we can get up and go very quickly. It’s not as much as a hurdle, and that has to do with their preexisting kind of economic and socioeconomic stability and education level. For many, it’s a challenging transition to come here to survive.
But now also living in a state of emergency, like we all are, that’s a much tougher thing to thread, a tougher thing to achieve is that survival on top of everything that now is being placed on our entire society. It was rough before, but now, it’s a lot more delicate because we know things like hunger and malnourishment, etc. can start to really take hold in a community that was struggling to begin with to provide those necessities. And now it’s just that risk is just gotten a lot higher.
EEDC: Are you fielding calls from all over the Shore?
Matthew Peters: Yes, we are. And it’s rough because we’ve had so much to do here in our bubble of Talbot County and Caroline County that we haven’t had the time over the past few years to spread our wings to really connect with people in other parts of the Eastern Shore.
Now we’re getting calls from Southern Maryland, Wicomico County, Worcester County, and Delaware. And we can hear the panic in some of the voices, and we’re trying to get them connected to resources, but a lot of times those resources are, more like: ‘here is a list of places that you can get food and here’s a list of places where you can get help.’ And they’re saying, ‘I can’t even leave the house.’
We’ve heard the panic in the voices from people from those areas, and we haven’t quite found out how to give them that direct attention that they need when they’re in that panic mode. At the moment we’re branching out and making sure they can just be taken care of, even though it’s a lot of extra time and burden for us because we don’t have the solutions yet for a lot of those communities that aren’t in our sphere of influence. So, in Talbot County and Caroline County, we’ve developed relationships with partner agencies and other groups so that we can quickly have conversations about individual families or areas and come up with action plans. We’re all working towards it, but we just don’t have that developed in some other areas.
EEDC: Have you been able to keep up with the demands of the Talbot County community?
Matthew Peters: In the meantime, yes, but it is a fear for us. We can see the unemployment numbers, and we’re all hoping things get back to normal, but then in the back of our minds, we know we have to have a plan for worst-case scenarios. So, as we talk to the community, we can hear in their voice that, okay, they’re doing all right now, but they don’t know about next week or a month from now.
EEDC: Sounds like you’re trying to keep one step ahead of the unknown.
Matthew Peters: We’re trying to plan for different situations because we know that the panic and the anxiety is going to build if things don’t get back to normal. We’re trying to do as much groundwork and legwork to put things in place right now for that spike in anxiety that we’re anticipating. And if it never comes, thank God, but we can’t sit around and wait. We have to understand, listen, and then also prepare for what could happen next week or next month and start planning for that. And so, if and when people call us, panicked, we already have a plan for it.
EEDC: How many calls are you getting daily?
Matthew Peters: Between the three of us, we’re probably fielding around a hundred calls a day. But each one’s just varying degrees. There are those, however, where we say, ‘okay, this has entered into emergency territory.’ For instance, when the entire family’s quarantined or there’s no income coming in, and no other resources that they can draw from. There’s nothing worse than trying to beat the flu or trying to beat the virus, and you don’t have enough food in the house, or you don’t have any liquids in the home or any aspirin, etc. It’s going to make that journey, just to fight, that much harder.
EEDC: How do you handle that type of high anxiety?
Matthew Peters: We want to make sure they’re comfortable, and at ease, so they can develop that immune system. And even for those in the house that aren’t testing positive, but had contact with somebody that was positive, we want to make sure their immune system is up to par, and they’re not stressed. They got food, they got the resources covered, and hopefully, that’s going to be the best defense for keeping people healthy.
And it feels really good to make sure these families know, that yes, we understand that this is not good, but you need to just relax, stay home, stay healthy. And then after 14 days, hopefully, you’ve cleared the hurdle and can get back to whatever the rest of society is doing at the moment.
EEDC: As a nonprofit, you also have to worry about your viability. With the standard means of fundraising not available at this time, it’s got to be tough.
Matthew Peters: Yes, so fundraising is always one of the things we’ve done. We rely a lot on that one-on-one contact with groups to get funding. We will have to wait and see how much that’s going to affect us–not being able to be out there in the community. So far, it seems like we’re doing okay. But it would be awful if six months from now we didn’t have enough funds to keep us all staffed.
We also need to make sure that our staff is mentally healthy because they’re taking on a lot with all these panic and emergency calls, and it’s tough for them as well. We need to make sure that we have enough staff and we can all help out each other. So, people can dump things on my desk or add to my phone call list and I can do some things and if I’m getting overwhelmed, I can dump some things on someone else. We’re really trying to make sure that we have the funding just to kind of spread this out among our staff.
EEDC: Any last words?
Matthew Peters: particularly during this time, every community voice needs to be heard and listened to. We know that this is not something that just affects one specific neighborhood or one certain political class or one particular socioeconomic class. So, if we’re not listening to everything and everyone, we probably won’t be successful in getting through this crisis right now.
We have to make sure everyone in our community is supported and safe. It’s important to be taking it seriously when someone says, ‘I’m worried about this’ or ‘I don’t know what to do about that,’ and then everyone teams up to find solutions.
The immigrant community has been marginalized by a lot of talk in our society for the past few years. And it’s important we put that aside for now and really just focus on community health.
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