How a group of moms turned a Virginia trailer park into a village
It was in this backyard that the women learned from a health worker what medical services their children are entitled to.
This backyard is where a DJ played music on Día del Niño, the Day of the Child, and the community invited a policeman to swing on a piñata. “She had never hit one before!” said a woman who captured the moment on video.
This backyard is where, every Friday, the women form an assembly line and with impressive efficiency empty a truck full of fresh produce and other goods, then make sure everyone in the park trailers that need food get it.
“If we didn’t have this community that we’ve built, we would be very vulnerable,” Rosalia Mendoza said in Spanish as she sat in one of those folding chairs. “We are united and that makes us stronger. What affects a trailer affects the whole community.
Poverty often takes people. It tears. It flies. It can leave people with empty stomachs, low self-esteem and a lost sense of security.
That’s why the women want people to know what they’ve created in this trailer park on Route 1. From a common struggle, they’ve built something special: a network of moms watching each other regularly, inform and encourage each other. .
Spending time with these moms is recognizing this: alone, some could find themselves drowned. But together, they were able to do more than walk on water.
“It’s unique,” Patricia Moreno said of the community. “It’s not everywhere.”
Moreno has spent the past two decades as an outreach worker for Anthem HealthKeepers Plus, work that takes her to low-income communities in northern Virginia to educate residents about their Medicaid benefits. Her fluency in Spanish and her willingness to go to even the most neglected neighborhoods have made her a welcome presence among Latino immigrants who don’t easily trust authority figures.
Moreno first heard of the women when one, Ana Delia Romero, called to ask if she would come and talk to them about health care. Moreno went to this garden, then she returned.
The population of the trailer park is one that nonprofit workers often worry about. The majority of residents are immigrants from Central and South America, and their families are tied to the local economy by threads that are usually among the first to be severed during economic downturns. Most men work in construction and catering, two industries that have been hit hard during the pandemic, and many women are out of work due to a lack of access to transportation and childcare. In recent years, several families have gone weeks without income and some have been evicted.
Moreno said many people in the communities she visits are reluctant to ask for help or accept it, but these mothers have worked hard to turn their trailer park into a village. They watch each other’s children. They take walks. They invite people to come and teach them subjects that will benefit their families and neighbors. The women have created a WhatsApp group and often use it to communicate.
“I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and I’ve never seen a system like this,” Moreno said.
On the day of my visit, she sat with eight of the women on the folding chairs. Also there was Ivana Escobar, director of collective impact for United Community, a nonprofit that provides food to the trailer park and support for women.
“We go to every community in this area,” Escobar said, “and these women have done something stronger than anywhere else.”
As the women recount, Ana Delia Romero, who is partially blind, was the one who started bringing them together. She was the first person in the community to test positive for coronavirus and she ended up in hospital for six days. After her recovery, she began volunteering with the Ministry of Health. She knew that many Latinos were hesitant to learn more about the virus and the safety precautions they could take, and she wanted to help get that information to more people.
She also wanted to make sure none of her neighbors went hungry during the pandemic. She got involved in free food distribution efforts and began knocking on neighbors’ doors to ask if they had enough to eat. Soon she realized that the need was great enough that it would be easier if the food arrived in her community.
Escobar said Romero asked United Community if a truck could deliver food to the trailer park, and now a truck comes every Friday. When it arrives, the women unload the contents and distribute it. The day I met the women, all but one were wearing United Community T-shirts. Escobar said they are not paid by the organization. They take care of the food distribution as volunteers.
“The women here, they’ve mobilized,” Escobar said. “You wouldn’t even know they’re struggling because of the way they present themselves.”
One of the women said that being able to help her neighbors had boosted her self-esteem. Another said she hopes other immigrant communities will hear about what they are doing and set up similar models.
“When Ana asked, ‘Who wants to volunteer?’ the answer was ‘Me, me, me,’” Elizabeth Villatoro said. “This community has no excuses. Anna doesn’t say, “I lost my sight, I can’t do anything. Alberta doesn’t say, “I have children with special needs, I can’t do anything. We do what we have to do.
As two young boys ran around the yard, the mothers talked about some of the needs of the community. Children do not have a playground nearby and the nearest football pitch is a 30 minute walk away. A woman also noted that adult classes would be helpful for community members who speak indigenous languages and cannot read or write in English or Spanish.
“If it didn’t exist, if we didn’t know each other, it would be a shame, because we wouldn’t know what to do in an emergency,” Mendoza said.
They would not know who to contact about their rights in the event of eviction. They wouldn’t know who to turn to when they realized the school year was about to begin and they couldn’t afford to buy supplies for their children.
On Friday, Moreno showed up again in that backyard. This time she brought with her 200 full backpacks.