Working from the epicenter of Center


Photos by Patrick Shea The seeds of Colorado’s Project Protect Food System Promotora Network sprouted in Center where volunteers from Promotores SLV educated community members and assembled and delivered packages with food, medical supplies, cleaning materials and quarantine-survival necessities.

Middle School principal helps organize Los Promotores del Valley de San Luis

CENTER — Center’s Skoglund Middle School Principal Luis Murillo responded to the first days of the COVID-19 pandemic during spring break last year at the same time when U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) kicked off a year-long tour of the state’s 64 counties to hear stories from constituents and local leaders.

Bennet recently included input from Murillo and others in legislation he wrote to align with President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan. To recap his 364-day tour, Bennet produced a 26-minute video with presentations from a few key leaders he met across the state.

Murillo described the rapid response to the virus, followed by four more minutes of testimony from Maria Villagomez, a Center resident who survived COVID-19 and subsequently joined Murillo and Los Promotores del Valle de San Luis to educate the community.

After hearing about the virus, said Murillo, “We went to remote learning. Of course, that’s my position as a principal. Our front-line workers and our farm workers continued to work, and then the cases started going up. I saw it as an issue of education and equity, so I decided to get involved. Luckily, I have a parental involvement group, and that’s who I called.”

The Center volunteers reached out to the community by posting videos, making phone calls and visiting door-to-door. In the span of eight months, the group grew to become Los Promotores del Valle de San Luis. They contacted roughly 3,000 families in all six San Luis Valley counties. Beyond English and Spanish, they also explained everything in the Mayan language shared by the Guatemalan community in and around Center.

“The sorting line in the potato cellars and the rows in the lettuce fields did not allow for distancing,” Murillo explained. “Pretty soon we had outbreaks in our area. We had people dying.”

Working with a core group of five that grew to 17, Murillo took a three-phase approach to the problem.

“Farm workers were not receiving information and resources to protect themselves and their families. They were not getting paid if they got sick and missed work,” Murillo continued. “We heard, and I quote, ‘I would rather die of COVID than my family die of hunger.’ They were afraid of speaking up because they feared retaliation and losing their job.”

Phased Approach

The first phase entailed recording presentations in English and Spanish.

“In the videos from back then,” the 38-year-old Murillo recalled, “I was heavier, and it was either here [Center Consolidated School campus] or my garage. I was just straight-up reading and translating the information given to me.”

They posted on Facebook and leveraged WhatsApp, a popular messaging application also owned by Facebook and popular in the Latino community. Some of the videos registered more than 3,000 views.

“I’m 6-9 and brown,” noted Murillo, a football player who arrived from California 18 years ago to play for Adams State University. “That’s not very common, so people recognize me.”

One of the most poignant videos Murillo recorded told stories from families who lost loved ones.

“I wanted to put a face to it. This was taking people’s lives,” Murillo said.

Phase two included approximately 300 phone calls with neighbors calling neighbors.

Murillo described the common reaction when “you get a message saying, ‘hey! This is the department of health, whatever….’”

As the seventh-year principal put it, “In the Latino culture, we just don’t trust too many systems. But when a neighbor calls and asks, ‘Did you get this information,’” people listen.

For the last phase, the group took a map of Center and broke down zones for knocking door-to-door wearing N-95s, face shields and gloves.

“We had information from the department of health. And we had kits with masks, gloves and hand sanitizers,” he said.

Communication and contact continue today for Los Promotores del Valle de San Luis after the Center group completed their first three phases between May and July. Like the stacks of boxes with hygiene kits, cleaning supplies, protective equipment and key items that still stood as tall as the principal in his office on March 3, quantifiable results piled up. Murillo’s team started to receive attention.

Group Getting Noticed

Center Town Administrator Brian Lujan invited Murillo to present during town board meetings via Zoom.

“I was so out of my element,” Murillo humbly explained. “Obviously, I’m an educator. But I just told them what we did.”

Lujan relayed the message of success to other small communities. Word reached Sen. Bennet beyond the Valley. The senator visited Center to meet the principal when school started in August.

Murillo received a call from Project Protect, a statewide organization in charge of an $870,000 grant to establish a community health promotion network. The principal jumped at the chance because it would allow their programs to expand throughout the Valley and he could pay the people who had already put in many long hours to help reduce infections.

“If I’m asking people to literally risk their lives,” Murillo explained, “there should be some money in their pockets.”

As the regional organizer, Murillo expanded the group to include 17 people. Four “promotores” promote the project with education initiatives in Center, Alamosa, Blanca and through a woman who speaks a Mayan dialect.

Providing Basic Needs

Project Protect specifically targets farm workers. Staff working out of Alamosa help sheep handlers near La Jara and Sanford while others also travel to cover all six Valley counties. But Murillo said they help anyone they meet who needs assistance.

To quantify the project, the group aligned problems with results. For example, they addressed food insecurity by delivering 1,200 food boxes to homes, school pick-up sites and workplaces.

“One thing we realized that was kind of ridiculous,” Murillo explained, “we pretty quickly found out that we were giving food to the people that make the food. That just blew my mind. This is broken. They were getting bags of potatoes they already touched.”

Like sharing food, the group distributed about 500 medicinal kits with aspirin, ginger root and other basic remedies because people were not prepared to be quarantined. They also created cleaning kits with bleach, gloves and wipes. They distributed sleeping bags, duffel bags, shirts, gloves and socks.

Beyond the quantifiable, Murillo said he felt that the most valuable contribution from his team was the human contact.

“To me,” Murillo said, “it was the checking in, the phone calls, the answering text messages late at night when someone is going through anxiety. Delivering a food box and seeing a person through the window and just waving was what I call being a ray of hope.”

Vaccination Effort

The Los Promotores del Valle de San Luis team will provide translation on March 15 when the agriculture sector is eligible to receive vaccinations throughout Colorado. In Murillo’s opinion, he would prioritize people who handle the crops, which is perhaps 20 percent of the estimated 5,000 farm workers in the Valley. The H2A workers due to arrive in May to manage lettuce fields and perform other jobs will likely amplify attention.

Recognizing the strain on a group that quickly expanded from five to 17, Murillo hosted a retreat at the school in Center on Feb. 27.

“We just sat in a circle,” the principal recounted. “I talked about my wife. We ate, and then we told stories.”

Los Promotores del Valle de San Luis was the first to form in Colorado, followed by other regional groups over a few months. Modeling their structure based on Center’s success managing the pandemic, the other groups grew to include a staff of 72 statewide who concentrate on COVID-19 response for the farming and ranching communities.