February 19, 2021

WithinReach Steps Up for Families During COVID: A Conversation with Director of Programs, José Villalobos

This past year, COVID-19 has brought new realities and challenges to our lives. As families and communities build resilience, WithinReach continues to adapt our work in ways that help us best serve Washington families. We are proud to be part of the public health response to the COVID-19 crisis and are taking action with our community and partners to support people who have been affected by the pandemic.

We had a chance to catch up with WithinReach’s Director of Programs, José Villalobos, to learn more about the ways WithinReach is mobilizing around critical outreach efforts statewide. From helping families access food, to making sure COVID-19 vaccines are distributed equitably, to our amazing team of Care Coordinators, our innovation and impact continue to grow.

Q&A with José Villalobos, MPA

Tell us about WithinReach’s involvement in the COVID Care program. 

Funded by the Washington State Department of Health (DOH), WithinReach launched the COVID Care Program in July of 2020. We are one of many organizations helping with statewide response efforts and together, we work to ensure that people have access to food, cleaning supplies and financial supports while they isolate or quarantine. We launched the program with a team of four Care Coordinators who mobilized in Yakima County and, due to a surge in cases around the holidays, we quickly expanded to a team of 12. With this growth in staff, we are now able to lend Care Coordination support in six counties across the state and have assisted more than 400 families.

How does our unique service model position us to better serve families and clients during COVID-19? 

The COVID Care program is really an extension of the work we’ve done for many years, but with a special focus on helping communities and families impacted by the pandemic. Our service delivery model includes a team of Care Coordinators who have expertise in local community resources as well as knowledge about statewide benefit programs such as WIC, SNAP and Washington Apple Health (Medicaid). This means our team is able to help families with immediate needs and also enroll them in long-term safety net programs that address concerns around hunger, health and financial stability.

Critical to our model is the follow-up offered by our dedicated team. They reach out to people to check-in with them and ask if their needs were met or whether they ran into any gaps or barriers while seeking assistance. It’s also important to us that families receive assistance from a culturally and linguistically competent team.

How has WithinReach shown up for Washington communities during the pandemic?

The planning and implementation of our COVID Care program was very rapid, and I am still amazed at how quickly our team came together to help with response efforts. We truly lived by WithinReach’s core organizational values (Agility, Collaboration, Inclusion, Initiative, Quality and Well-being) and made sure that our team was ready to support wherever needed, as soon as possible. I’ve seen our organization mobilize around critical outreach efforts in the past and our agility is something that our partners at DOH, the Health Care Authority and the Department of Social and Health Services, value about our organization.

How are families responding to our COVID Care work with them? 

We are so lucky to have a team of Care Coordinators who serve with heart. They care deeply about connecting families to the help they need to safely isolate or quarantine. I turned to the team to get a sense from them about how people have responded to our Care Coordination services. Words such as “grateful,” “appreciative” and “relieved” rose to the top.  Anya, one of our Care Coordinators, shared the following reflection:

“The response from clients has been overwhelmingly positive. Everyone has been really appreciative of the supplies we’re able to get them, the info and resources we provide, and the simple fact that someone is calling to check in on them.” 

What challenges or barriers have we seen increase among the communities and families we serve, and how have we responded

The economic downturn has increased food insecurity for so many people and our team is positioned to help families access programs such as WIC, SNAP, Pandemic EBT and local supports such as food banks. Our direct service team is amazing! In addition to providing application assistance, they track policy changes that impact families’ eligibility for federal- and state-funded programs so they are able to inform families about increased benefits as well as benefit extensions. We’re a trusted source of information for families, which is so important during these times of uncertainty.

What is our involvement in the promotion of the COVID-19 vaccine to ensure that the vaccine is safely, equitably and effectively distributed across Washington State?  

In December, our partners at DOH reached out to WithinReach’s immunization team for assistance with coordinating an emerging initiative. DOH had sought to form a COVID-19 Vaccine Implementation Committee. Due to a high response rate, DOH decided on a “collaborative” approach, with hopes of reaching as many communities as possible – especially communities that are typically underrepresented in the vaccine arena.

The collaborative launched in early February and our team is playing a pivotal role in designing and supporting the collaboration’s structural elements. In partnership with DOH staff, our team will help plan and implement community relations briefings, feedback sessions and the mobilization of action teams. This project will be another opportunity for us to continue supporting Washingtonians impacted by the pandemic, and it will strengthen our expertise in public engagement strategies that center community voice and result in community-informed solutions. This work is so critical because we as individuals and public health workers are all accountable for ensuring that the COVID-19 vaccines are distributed fairly, equitably and are accessible to communities disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

How do you think our future work will change or advance due to COVID-19? 

Finding our way to the other side of the pandemic requires a community-wide response. We are optimistic that our COVID Care work will help create an infrastructure that supports communities and helps drive positive health outcomes. Over the past year, we’ve been able to leverage our technology assets to ensure our staff can safely work from home while supporting families. This opened up the opportunity to hire full-time staff in different areas of the state, expanding our statewide reach with local connections. I can’t imagine a future where we’ll go back to doing our work in the same way, and that’s not a bad thing. Our innovation and creativity continue to grow and will have lasting impacts on our service-delivery model – one that is agile, strong and highly collaborative.

We’ve already learned so much about helping families in extreme situations, as well as what support and training our team needs to help families meaningfully. Those learnings will help shape the future of our work and I am grateful that WithinReach is able to help in this way.

José Villalobos, MPA is the Director of Programs at WithinReach, and his role focuses on the implementation, operations and evaluation of the agency’s direct-service programs. He helped to design the Help Me Grow Washington Coordinated Access Point and has expertise in “closed-loop” referral pathways, which ensure that families with young children are successfully connecting to critical services in collaboration with governmental, medical and early childhood education providers. José holds a master’s degree in public administration from Seattle University where he researched using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to inform outreach strategies to marginalized and underserved communities.