When Maribel Ramirez lost her baby in pregnancy several years ago, there wasn't a program available with cultural sensitivity in Palo Alto to help process her grief.
"The cultural and socio-economic factors influence how we process grief. Grief is a difficult topic in general, but for the Latin community, it becomes a bit more challenging due to all the myths we have about grief," explained Ramirez, who went on to volunteer with the Spanish Services Program of Kara, a Palo Alto nonprofit grief-counseling agency.
Ramirez learned about the then-fledgling Spanish program in 2016 and immediately wanted to help. Today, she is part of a team of 20 peer-support volunteers who work with Kara's Spanish-speaking clients. The program added six trained volunteers this year to try to meet the need.
"Being part of Kara, and supporting the Latin community, has been challenging and rewarding at the same time. As an immigrant and as a person who had many significant losses, I can relate with some of the struggles the Latin communities have," Ramirez wrote in a statement celebrating the program's five-year anniversary this past June.
"Helping normalize a person's feelings is so powerful. I also believe that being able to speak their language provides a sense of comfort, too. We use phrases, poems and words that help us connect with one another, but most importantly, we listen with compassion," she wrote.
Since January, the program has provided peer-based and consultative support to more than 200 people. Kara used a $7,500 Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund grant it received last year to train five of the volunteers in its expanding program. The expansion is needed more than ever.
"The program is at capacity" in terms of the number of clients the volunteers can serve, Santucci said.
The Spanish Services Program was started by Maria Berardi, a Kara outreach volunteer who did research on grief in the Spanish-speaking community. She found barriers to grief support services and saw that the existing services lacked cultural sensitivity to the Latino community. Now directed by Rosario Puga-Dempsey, the program reaches its clients through partnerships with community organizations that include East Palo Alto Senior Center, Menlo Park Senior Center, Community Health Awareness Council in Mountain View, On Lok in East San Jose, Redwood City School District and Samaritan House Redwood City. Puga-Dempsey is also part of the National Alliance for Grieving Children Spanish Services workgroup.
Kara has seen "an increased, continuous need for services and even more so for the Latinx community," Executive Director Jim Santucci said.
While working to meet the growing challenge, the organization has also pivoted from many face-to-face services due to the COVID-19 crisis this year, Santucci said. In response to COVID-19, Kara is regularly conducting peer-based, one-to-one support by phone or Zoom video for its clients, including in the Spanish Services Program. It began weekly blog posts in Spanish to support Spanish-speaking community members; created a six-part video series for clients produced by the director and volunteers; presented a four-part online workshop for Sunday Friends Foundation in San Jose, an organization working to lift people out of poverty; trained seven new volunteers in an online format in September; conducted an online mindfulness-based stress reduction course for more than 20 clients and volunteers in the fall; and celebrated the traditional Day of the Dead with an altar at the Kara building in the Professorville neighborhood, where community members could pass by and have contactless visits, he said.
Kara has also begun to see service calls specifically related to COVID-19 deaths throughout the past eight months, including among its Spanish-speaking clients, Santucci said. The pandemic has stretched the agency's overall capacity, as volunteers have had to care for children and loved ones due to school and child care closures.
Kara isn't slowing down its commitment to the community, however. Santucci said the organization has a vision for 2021: to expand its services through a telehealth model during the pandemic and through in-person support afterward. They plan to hire a half-time Spanish service associate, add to the Spanish Services Volunteer Corps through annual training and offer additional workshops and education events.
The Spanish Services Program's importance can perhaps best be gauged by the words of the volunteers, some of whom were previously clients.
"I joined Kara because someone had told me about an agency that was offering a training and I love to learn so I signed up to join," Elvia Torres, a volunteer who began in 2018, wrote in the five-year anniversary statement. "To my surprise, it was a training about grief. During that time, I was facing the battle with cancer of my mother and it was during the training that she passed away. I was not sure if I was going to be able to continue, but the words of comfort and the way they welcomed my tears and gave me space was something that I will never forget.
"I have continued my volunteering at Kara because being able to offer someone a shoulder to cry on is something beautiful. It is how I can offer our community a little bit of what Kara gave me. The volunteer group is full of wonderful people that have turned into a family for me. I am grateful for Kara and for the work that we do because there truly is nothing like it out in the community."
The Holiday Fund campaign to raise $400,000 for local nonprofit agencies serving families, kids and individuals in need is now in full swing. For more information or to donate to the campaign, go to siliconvalleycf.org/Paw-holiday-fund. More information about Kara is available at kara-grief.org.