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A Manchester community program has connected more than 600 people with resources, opportunities

(From left to right) Wanda Castillo, Bishnu Khadka, Nira Kandel, Luisa Leger, Gabriel Ajao, Isaac Rugali. Missing in the picture, are Maria Briones and Nicha Ntiotia who are also from PHAST team.
Gaby Lozada
/
NHPR
(From left to right) Wanda Castillo, Bishnu Khadka, Nira Kandel, Luisa Leger, Gabriel Ajao, Isaac Rugali. Missing in the picture, are Maria Briones and Nicha Ntiotia who are also part of the Public Health and Safety Team.

Wanda Castillo arrived in New York from Puerto Rico when she was 15 years old. But after a vacation to New Hampshire, she ended up staying. She says she found more opportunities here.

“Within a month my entire family moved to New Hampshire,” she said.

Castillo grappled with the challenges many immigrant women face, in particular when she became a mom at 16. That didn't deter her from becoming a community leader, helping other new arrivals understand and navigate living in the U.S.

In 2021, those experiences led her to be the supervisor of Manchester's Public Health and Safety Team, a local agency created by the Manchester Health Department to respond to the negative effects of the pandemic in the city. Castillo says she wants to help people have the same opportunities that she did.

Eight community health workers make up the team. They’re assigned to different Manchester wards and respond to non-emergency calls to the police department, such as frequent callers who make non-criminal reports.

Gabriel Ajao, who’s originally from Nigeria, is in charge of wards three and nine, where he says many people from Sudan, Congo, and Nigeria live.

“I learned a lot from my community,” he said. “That is what drives me to work every day.”

In conjunction with the Manchester Police Rapid Response Unit, the community health workers also offer people a chance to connect with substance use treatment options three times a week . They also do wellness checks, for example when a person misses a Meals on Wheels delivery.

“The purpose of this is to relieve the police department from these phone calls,” Castillo said. “The person may be just in a doctor’s appointment and that is why they miss their delivery.”

But their job goes beyond that, as the team tries to make access to resources more equitable.

According to the latest U.S. Census population estimates, in 2021, 12% of Manchester’s population lived under the poverty line, and 10% were uninsured. The public health and safety team aims to help this population and other residents apply for housing, health services, employment, welfare, and mental health programs.

Castillo says people struggle to connect with these services since the pandemic because of a lack of information and problems gathering necessary documents.

Community health workers also provide support as people look for better-paying jobs, higher education opportunities, and apprentice programs.

Since 2021, the team has helped 675 individuals of which 447 were immigrants, including newcomers and undocumented who do not qualify for local or federal programs.

Castillo says regardless of their ethnicity, every family they assist has the same problems: navigating the welfare electronic system or finding food.

“People still struggle to find housing [and] getting all the documents you need to get assistance can be [another] challenge,” she said. “They have to make that decision, ‘Do I feed my children or do I pay the rent?’”

For people whose first language is English, navigating these systems is difficult, Castillo says . But for immigrant residents who don’t know English — or speak it as a second or even third language — it’s even harder.

Castillo (left) and community health worker Luisa Ledger. Ledger says her biggest challenge is convincing people in her community to go to a clinician instead of using natural remedies when they are sick. Once a correctional officer, she changed career to “help good people,” she said.
Gaby Lozada
/
NHPR
Castillo (Left) and community health worker Luisa Ledger. Ledger says her biggest challenge is convincing people in her community to go to a clinician instead of using natural remedies when they are sick. Once a correctional officer, she changed career to “help good people,” she said.

Sometimes the resources people need do not exist and the team has to get creative. One of those problems is helping immigrant elders accessing senior centers.

“Maybe translating the newsletters and the programs,” Castillo said. “It is not gonna happen in a blink of an eye, but it is something that the city is looking for.”

Read more about how lack of outreach in Spanish may be cutting Latino seniors off from services and connection in New Hampshire.

Castillo says they also help undocumented people who do not qualify for local or federal relief. She worries about undocumented, uninsured mothers who can’t find affordable primary care physicians. She says the team's job is to help people and not discriminate based on someone's immigration status.

As for her role as a Latina leader in her community, Castillo said it is not impossible for immigrant women to thrive. She says these women should focus on what they say and not feel self-conscious about their accents. She says many times people don’t understand them just because they haven’t met many immigrants.

“We feel because we may have an accent that could be a barrier for us to grow,” she says. “If we start cleaning the floors it is ok, but it is the space for you to take advantage of ESL classes.”

Manchester's Public Health and Safety Team is funded through 2026. Castillo says they are hoping to get more funding to continue beyond that.

To reach the Manchester's Public Health and Safety Team call 603 540-7923

Gabriela Lozada is a Report for America corps member. Her focus is on Latinx community with original reporting done in Spanish for ¿Qué hay de Nuevo NH?.
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