Santa Barbara County farmworkers face unique challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, as they often live in crowded homes and have not stopped working. | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss

For more than 40 years, Community Health Centers of the Central Coast has been quietly providing medical care to those in the community who have limited access to healthcare, focusing especially on farmworker communities. The nonprofit, which is primarily supported by government funding, was recently given a $200,000 boost thanks to a combined donation from the Santa Barbara Vintners Foundation and Direct Relief.

The money was raised in February during the Santa Barbara Vintners Foundation’s biennial wine gala at the Ritz-Carlton Bacara. Of the $200,000 raised through the silent and live auctions, half was earmarked directly for CHC. The other $100,000 went to Direct Relief, the longtime beneficiary of the 11th annual auction, but the Goleta-based disaster aid nonprofit decided to donate that money to the CHC as well.

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Steve Mahr, the CHC’s director of marketing, said that the funds would be used to provide more outreach to farmworker communities and begin to bring back secondary care services that were paused due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to safety concerns and lack of protective personnel equipment, CHC temporarily downsized elective dental and optometry services, furloughing the staff in the process. With the recent donation, CHC can bring back some of those health-care services. 

The $200,000 donation to Community Health Centers of the Central Coast was raised during the Santa Barbara Vintners Foundation on February 15, which was attended by Direct Relief’s Thomas Tighe (above right), foundation president Jessica Gasca, and CHC’s Ron Castle.

Also critical is CHC’s role in getting the word out to the community about the latest pandemic information, including how to use the three free virus testing sites in Santa Barbara County. One struggle in getting these services to everyone who needs them is that some members of the farmworker community are from indigenous communities in Mexico and Central America that rely entirely on spoken language. So outreach needs to be both written in Spanish and oral in languages like Mixtec to reach these populations.

On top of that, COVID-19 poses a double-edged threat to farmworker communities. Deemed essential workers, farmworkers have still had to work during the pandemic, and many live in cramped spaces.

“Social-distancing requirements are a luxury for those of us that live in single-family homes,” said Mahr. “The majority of farmworkers share homes, so having physical distance is extremely challenging.”

A recent survey conducted by CHC showed that 40 percent of families in Guadalupe share their home with one other family; another 38 percent reported sharing their home with two other families. That’s made it virtually impossible for many families to consistently enforce proper social-distancing measures. 

The survey also reported that many growers told farmworkers that if one person tested positive for COVID-19, then the entire crew would be laid off. This provides a disincentive to get tested and report being sick, something that CHC is working hard to combat. 

With the $200,000 donation, the CHC will push more outreach into communities in need in effective ways, and, most importantly, continue to establish trust among the communities that they help. 


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