Building Trust Where They Live
Mothers going without… so their children can eat.
Parents working round the clock… and then see no alternative to fast foods. Women returning home from correctional programs… without the skills to prepare meals for their families.
This is the face of hunger and nutritional need—and these are people that UMass Extension serves daily from its Nutrition Education Program regional office on Wilbraham Street in Springfield.
These days, many clients are “just trying to survive,” says Pat Harmsen, UMass Extension NEP supervisor in Springfield.
“With everything going on in the economy, they’re just holding on,” says Harmsen. “We’re here to help them manage and make healthier choices for themselves and their families on very tight budgets.”
To reach the low-income populations they serve, NEP’s Springfield staff has long worked closely with local agencies from every corner of the city and beyond – the public school system, domestic violence shelters, substance abuse recovery centers, employment training and GED programs, the Springfield Housing Authority, WIC, the New England Farm Workers Shelter. The list goes on and on—and it’s growing.
The success of these partnerships speaks not only to the NEP staff’s skills and knowledge, but to their commitment to the city in which they work and, even more important, live.
“Our staff all live in Springfield,” says Harmsen. “When I’m in the community doing collaboration, sometimes there’s this assumption that, because I’m from UMass, I live in Amherst. When they learn I live in Springfield, there’s a higher level of trust—‘Oh, you understand, you live here.’”
Harmsen has also made a point of building a staff that truly reflects the many diverse communities being served. This diversity enables NEP to offer bilingual programs that give clients information and tools they’ll really use, such as ways to prepare updated, healthier versions of favorite foods from their own culture. It also helps level the playing field.
“Our programs are specifically designed to not take a top-down approach,” says Harmsen. “They’re interactive, collaborative.”
That sense of collaboration extends to the staff itself. “We make a lot of collective decisions,” says Harmsen. “It’s not about who’s right, or about me dictating the way it should be. It’s about what makes sense.”
No wonder the NEP educators on Harmsen’s staff give, in her words, 120 percent. For nutrition educator Ana Rosa Monet, that means making the extra effort to really listen to her clients, understand their reality, and build meaningful relationships that become transformative over time.
“We see any little change as positive,” says Monet. That may mean encouraging a family to grow their own tomatoes, persuading parents to take advantage of school lunch programs, teaching pregnant teens how to read food labels, or empowering people with chronic, nutrition-related diseases such as diabetes or hypertension to talk with their doctors about diet and exercise as an adjunct to medication. “A lot of our clients don’t know about the resources available in the community,” says Monet. “We help them build bridges.”
Harmsen sees such strong, community-based links reflecting the essence of what UMass Extension is about, and consistent with its longstanding land-grant mandate – putting research to work, hand-in-hand with community organizations and populations, even as that population has shifted from farms to towns, suburbs, and cities.
“The University of Massachusetts has made a point of keeping up with where the needs are and building on its rural, agricultural-based past to see that all the state’s population is served,” says NEP coordinator Lisa Sullivan-Werner.
It’s a shift, says Sullivan-Werner, that began as far back as the 1960s, when NEP began sending its educators to knock on doors in Springfield, Holyoke, Chicopee, and other struggling city centers. And it’s reflected in the mission of the recent UMass-Springfield partnership to promote collaborations between the university and local organizations that will lead to the revitalization of the city’s economy.
Today, NEP staff members in Springfield are seeing more and more of their neighbors responding to those opportunities as needs grow and social services programs take a financial beating. “The people we serve don’t always want to talk about not having money,” says Harmsen. “At the beginning, they might be hesitant about what they reveal, but educators like Rosa have the sensitivity to wait until they build trust and know it’s safe.”
What Monet and her co-workers have come to understand is that in a multicultural, multiracial, yet economically challenged city like Springfield, having the ability to speak from the heart of shared experience makes all the difference.
“There’s a lot of information out there,” says Monet, “But sometimes people are too proud to admit they need help. And when they are, I can tell them, ‘I’ve been there, too.’”