Belisa Urbina knew the well-being of her staff was her most important priority, but she had an important decision to make—she and her husband, Miguel, both.
The two founded the nonprofit Ser Familia in 2001 after moving from Puerto Rico to Georgia in 1999. In the nearly two decades since its inception, Ser Familia has become a leading program in Georgia that provides family services to the Latino communities of the Greater Atlanta region.
So, in March 2020 with the probable outbreak of the novel coronavirus on the horizon, Belisa says she reached out to her employees and board members for input.
“I remember that on a Sunday I sent a text to my board members and asked if they could meet with me via phone that afternoon,” Belisa says. “We went through every scenario—what if we closed the offices, we kept this one open, closed that one—we crunched the numbers and made plans from ABC up to Z.”
Belisa says Ser Familia ultimately made the decision to keep their offices open through the worst of the pandemic. She said it was important—too important—that the Latino community have a place to come “in the midst of a tremendous crisis,” and “be listened to and be supported.”
“We were blessed to be able to provide emergency assistance in the way we could do it,” she says. “We have provided the same services that we provided [before the pandemic], and on top of that, we are doing an emergency relief effort of really large proportions.”
Ser Familia aims to strengthen Latino families and equip Latino youth, couples, parents and families through programs that “teach improved life, leadership and communication skills,” and they offer social services to Latino families—for almost 20 years they have offered youth programs, case management, victim support services, mental health counseling, immigration legal relief efforts and other emergency services, Belisa says.
To this day, Belisa says Ser Familia has supplied more than $400K in emergency rental assistance.
And the demand has increased since the COVID-19 outbreak. Ser Familia was one of the most recent recipients of grant funds made possible through the Greater Atlanta COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund, a joint effort from United Way of Greater Atlanta and the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta.
On Aug. 11, United Way and Community Foundation announced the seventh round of grants for the COVID-19 response. Ser Familia received $150,000 to meet the increased demand for emergency financial assistance.
The seventh round of grants totaled roughly $1.13 million and targeted emergency financial assistance for housing-related costs. The grants went to 10 organizations in response to the region’s needs resulting from COVID-19.
The Latino community was one of the “first ones to be impacted,” Belisa says, after state and local officials made efforts to stem the spread of the coronavirus by shutting down small businesses, restaurants, gyms and schools.
As of Sept. 1, COVID-19, which is a respiratory illness with symptoms such as cough, fever and in severe cases, difficulty breathing, has infected more than 6 million nationwide and killed more than 183,000 people.
“The hospitality industry, construction, all of those where the Latino families work went out the door,” Belisa says. “From this point, there’s no recovery in sight.”
Belisa’s team did a survey around the second week of April to see just how great the impact in her community was. She said Ser Familia found that of the surveyed, about 65 percent had lost one or both sources of income in the home.
Ser Familia had pivoted to address the immediate needs of the community, Belisa says, which meant offering tutoring, addressing food insecurity, COVID-19 testing, etc.
She’s been thankful for her staff and their ability to step up during these times—often working long hours, weekends. With every challenge that COVID-19 brought, Belisa says her staff went “toe to toe with it.”
“Sometimes you think that you have the right people on [staff], but it’s times like these when you just know you have the right people,” Belisa says. “My staff has been here and have shown up every day, every time. They have gone beyond everything that I have imagined they would do. They have made every difference in the world.”
She was also extremely grateful for the grant funds provided by United Way and Community Foundation. Without this partnership and support, she says, “none of this would be possible.”
If you would like to help empower this work in communities across Greater Atlanta, donate to the Greater Atlanta COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund.
If you or someone you know lives within the city limits of Atlanta and are in need of emergency rental assistance, visit relief.uwga.org to see if you might be eligible for funds that could cover past due rent, utilities and move-in deposits as a result of impending eviction.