Villegas works at a nonprofit organization and spends the rest of her time volunteering. She is well connected and trusted in the community. She calls herself “the Hispanic Google.” So when a coronavirus outbreak hit Cache County, Utah, concerned families reached out to her. Until about 2 a.m. that night, she answered calls and Facebook messages, one after another. Those who tested positive worried about infecting others and how they would feed their families. Those who tested negative were unsure whether they should continue going to work.
“Usually, I would say, ‘I've got this,’” Villegas said. But with the urgency of need and the number of households affected, “the best way we can do this is all organizations jump on it together.”
Nearly as quickly as those affected by the virus began calling Villegas, organizations and community members reached out asking how they could help. Nearly 300 employees at the JBS beef plant tested positive, which meant the virus disproportionately affected the Latino and refugee communities in the county about an hour north of Salt Lake City.
By that Friday, volunteers had begun delivering Clorox wipes, hand sanitizer and other household supplies to the self-isolating families. By Saturday, food arrived at their doorsteps, too. Those days in early June began a weeks-long, and still ongoing, showcase of support and empathy — driven by organizations working together, individuals distributing deliveries, and families committing to keep others safe by staying home.
Crescencio Lopez, another respected figure in the Latino community, orchestrated a decentralized network of donation drop-off locations throughout the county. Multiple churches joined the grass-roots effort. Cache Refugee and Immigrant Connection (CRIC) had a volunteer base eager to help. Together, they have served more than 350 households in the past month.
When Jenny Willmore heard about the outbreak, she asked Lopez, one of her colleagues at Utah State University, how she could help. Lopez said they needed building space, so Willmore suggested the Spanish-language ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Logan, where she is president of the Relief Society. Rooms suddenly resembled makeshift grocery stores where donated food could be packaged and distributed.
Shannon Rhodes saw Lopez’s social media post asking for donations, but she noticed there weren’t any drop-off sites near her home in the northern part of the county. She reached out, and soon her garage filled with food and supplies. She ran out of shelf space and had to borrow a folding table from her parents.
“I wish every community had a refugee center like the one that we have here,” Rhodes said. “I wish every community had churches that all work together for one greater good. I think what's been the most inspiring thing is just everybody working together.”
As the coronavirus spread across the United States, meatpacking facilities became major centers of outbreaks. President Trump signed an executive order in late April compelling meat production facilities to remain open. In about nine of every 10 households CRIC serves, at least one family member works at processing and production plants. Those are the people “who are really going to work every day, risking their lives to feed America and to feed our community,” said Jess Lucero, CRIC’s board president.
The number of cases in Utah remained relatively low until late May, with no more than 200 new cases per day. But since cases began rising about a month ago, they have yet to return to that level. Cache County has had more than 1,400 cases.
“It seemed to us that it was probably going to be inevitable,” Lucero said. “And I think that's why we were pretty ready to respond immediately as an organization and as a community. Unfortunately, you could see it coming.”
The web of donation centers formed quickly, and they could function independently or with one another. A Facebook group of nearly 100 volunteers eased communication between the hubs. A list of volunteers allowed them to share the workload when needed. Whenever a local news outlet mentioned the outbreak and the grass-roots effort, donations poured in.
Rather than relying on a single organization or government agency, “We think we’re more likely to be able to serve everyone that is in need in that model,” Villegas said. With numerous sources offering help, families could approach the group that offered familiarity and comfort. Celina Wille, an extension professor and associate director of the Latinx Cultural Center at Utah State, used her personal and professional relationships to serve as a bridge between government agencies and the grass-roots effort — “smoothing some of the wrinkles,” she called it.
“Everybody wants to help,” said Wille, who spends her days mostly on video calls talking with different groups. “We just need to have a good plan.”
Villegas grew up in Cache Valley and runs a Facebook page called La Pulguita De Logan, which translates to the Flea Market of Logan. That group of about 4,300 people serves as an online community center. Nearly everyone Villegas talked with on that Thursday night, she already knew.
“They trust me, so the messages will come to me,” Villegas said. “Even if I say call X, Y and Z, that’s fine. They won’t call X, Y and Z. They will call me.”
With two young children, Villegas said she would “get an address, change a diaper, get an address, feed a kid, get an address, shower a baby.” Amanda Barrandey, who works at CRIC, helped Villegas manage the volume of calls. Some families worried about the stigma attached to having the virus, so neighbors and friends would call on their behalf. They only had to provide the information they felt comfortable giving, and they knew Villegas would distribute those addresses to trusted volunteers.
The local food pantry usually requires an application process, but it suspended that requirement for now to better serve these families. They can drive by and pick up a box of food. CRIC sends a list of self-isolated households a few times per week. Matt Whitaker, who has worked at the Cache Community Food Pantry for 17 years, prepares the boxes of food according to family size. Volunteers pick up the boxes and deliver them.
“The families who are donating and delivering items to families in quarantine are saying, ‘Here, we’re caring for you with this food and with these health items,’” said Lucero, whose garage has become a health kit assembly center. “And the families in quarantine are saying, ‘Here, we’re caring for you by staying home and keeping our community safe.’”
On World Refugee Day, community organizations and health agencies held a drive-through celebration for families in Cache Valley. Vendors lined the road, and mask-wearing volunteers handed boxes of food and supplies to the cars passing by. Villegas said it usually takes six months to organize the annual health fair. This similar event came together in three days.
The calls and messages continue to flow toward Villegas. She has tried to stop looking at the number of coronavirus cases in the community, focusing her energy more on what she can do to help. Then there are more messages and emails coming from individuals and church leaders, all the people who want to contribute to the effort.
“In such hard times,” Villegas said, “we were able to see such beauty come out of it.”
Read more about Extraordinary People: