This post is part of our community blog series that highlights best practices and solutions from our network partners. This post is contributed by Unite Us team member Megan Middaugh of Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
On a typical Saturday last January in Sioux City, Iowa, Ana Hernandez got ready for bed after a night of watching television with her family. She joked with her daughter that it was so cold outside, they might freeze that night.
A few hours later, around 6 am, Ana woke up to a peculiar smell. She wanted to keep sleeping but felt that something was off, so she decided to check the kitchen. That’s when she walked past her daughter’s room and saw that it was “bright, beet red.” Her home, where both her son and daughter were still sleeping, quickly became engulfed in flames.
As Hernandez and her children rushed downstairs, they saw that fire was already ripping through the two-story building where they lived.
“I was paralyzed seeing how much smoke and fire there was in comparison to what I was experiencing inside,” Hernandez said. She watched helplessly as all her family’s possessions were destroyed in an instant. “It was everything we had and everything we knew. And there was nothing we could do about it,” Hernandez said.
Making the first referral
The following day, Hernandez called the Sioux City Community School District, where both her children attend school. She wanted to let the school know that her kids had lost their computers in the fire, so they wouldn’t be able to participate in their virtual classes on Monday. Hernandez reached Dulce Sanchez, Equity and Homeless Liaison, at the school district.
Upon learning that the Hernandez family had lost everything, Sanchez sprang into action. Her organization had recently joined the Unite Iowanetwork, and she knew this was an opportunity to make her first referral and connect Hernandez with essential resources.
“I logged in and checked off everything I thought she would need,” Sanchez said. Those needs included housing, clothing, household items, food, and extracurricular activities for Hernandez’s son and daughter.
Within 24 hours, a nonprofit organization in the community answered the call.
The power of a coordinated network
When Mandy Engel-Cartie saw a request for help through Unite Us, she jumped at the opportunity to offer assistance to a family in need. Engel-Cartie is a director at Girls Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping girls become confident, capable leaders through education and mentorship.
Girls Inc. had recently joined the Unite Iowa network. The organization has a partnership with Bed Bath and Beyond and receives regular donations of brand-new bedding and other household goods. Since the pandemic began, Girls Inc. has served as a learning hub for girls involved in the organization, providing a supportive environment for virtual learning. Since fewer families had been coming through the building, Engel-Cartie said donations were piling up. When she saw the referral from Sanchez, she offered to give Hernandez and her family any supplies they needed.
“Mandy was so wonderful. She was able to provide me with anything and everything,” Hernandez said. “I went to go pay them a visit, and Mandy said, ‘Here’s what we’ve got, grab anything you need.’ In my mind, I was thinking, ‘We need everything.’”
Providing a roadmap to resources
Although the Sioux City Community School District and Girls Inc. had worked together in the past, COVID-19 safety protocols had created a silo between the two organizations. The Unite Us Platform was able to keep these two partners connected throughout the pandemic.
“If we had not been part of Unite Iowa and if we did not have the platform, we simply would not have been aware of the needs of this family,” Engel-Cartie said. “In a nutshell, there was a need, and there were resources, but there wasn’t a roadmap between those two things. Unite Iowa is what gave us that roadmap and changed lives.”
School districts across networks powered by Unite Us serve as critical convenors within their communities to address the social determinants of health of their students and families. As the Equity and Homeless Liaison for the Sioux City Community School District—which serves more than 15,000 students—Sanchez said she had often struggled to connect families with the help they needed efficiently. Like many communities across the U.S., Sioux City faces unprecedented levels of social need due to the pandemic, and connection to resources is now more critical than ever. Like many of the networks powered by Unite Us, Unite Iowa reports food assistance, housing and shelter, and clothing and household goods as their top three needs.
“Sometimes, it’s hard for me to find which resource to use. We have resources, but it can be difficult to get a hold of them,” Sanchez said. Through the Unite Us Platform, she has already made a second referral for another client.
“It’s comforting for us too because we know that our families are getting that local help,” Sanchez said. “Our families know now, there are good people out there, there are resources, and there are people willing to provide help.”
Unite Iowa is a community data exchange of health and social care providers sponsored by CyncHealth.