In July 2022, a Venezuelan family with small children arrived at the Brigham’s Emergency Department (ED). They had no medical needs, but they did not know where else to turn. They were in desperate need of housing, food and other basic necessities.
It is a scenario that has played out repeatedly at emergency departments and shelters across Massachusetts over the past year as more than 7 million people have fled Venezuela due to severe poverty, hunger and political instability — a humanitarian crisis the United Nations estimates has become the second-largest external displacement event worldwide.
This crisis, along with a simultaneous wave of migrants from Haiti fleeing deadly gang violence and civil unrest in the island nation, recently prompted Gov. Maura Healey to declare a state of emergency and request urgent federal government assistance. As part of Mass General Brigham’s broader community health strategy, the system has deployed its care vans to help support the health care needs of migrants and is working with community partners to address health-related social needs.
When the young Venezuelan family came to the Brigham ED last summer, however, these developments hadn’t yet occurred. Shortly after their arrival, a social worker in the department decided to call Erika Leon, family partner for the Stronger Generations Initiative, a Brigham program that works to eliminate inequities in maternal and infant health outcomes by supporting pregnant individuals and parents under the age of 25.
“The social worker asked if I had supplies for this family, whose youngest child was just 16 months,” said Leon. She immediately jumped into action, gathering everyday necessities — clothing, diapers and wipes, toys and even gift cards to buy some groceries — and delivered them to the family.
Soon after that first call, Leon started to get regular requests from the ED to assist other families from Venezuela, Mexico, Colombia and the Dominican Republic experiencing similar circumstances. Without Social Security numbers, they did not qualify for emergency housing, health insurance or other support from the state. Unhoused, they came to the ED looking for shelter, clothing and food.
“There were so many families facing the same challenges,” said Leon.
She stepped in to help fill the gaps where she could. Despite having a full-time job and a family of her own, Leon made it her mission to find creative solutions for these families with the limited resources at her disposal. She also knew she couldn’t do it alone.
“I began looking for other organizations that might help and connected with the Massachusetts Venezuelan Association,” Leon said. “One of their directors, Denise Rincon, has been very helpful in providing these families with food and helping to find them housing, so now when I have a new family in need, I reach out to them and other organizations for support.”
Although Leon has been able to cobble together resources to help these families with their immediate needs, she knows that infrastructure to support these families over the long term can truly make a difference. She sees the impact that Stronger Generations makes with young families and would like to see the same for all immigrant families.
“When I start working with families through Stronger Generations, they have absolutely nothing. And then two years later, with a little support, they have housing, a stable job and have learned English. It’s amazing,” she said.
Despite the long hours, Leon said she’s driven to continue the work because she sees what a difference it makes to the families she’s helping.
She also has a personal connection to this work. “My parents emigrated from Guatemala to the United States, and I know the struggles my own family faced,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to see a change in the health care system, not only for Latinos but for all people of color.”
While it was only a year ago that Leon was called to the ED to assist that first family, she has since helped more than 30 others. Because of her compassion and hard work, instead of spending their nights hungry and sleeping in a park, these families obtained food and a safe place to stay.
This spring, Leon was proud to learn that her work has not gone unnoticed. In April, she received a commendation for her work with these families from the Massachusetts House of Representatives at a ceremony in East Boston.
“When I learned about the honor, I felt very happy and almost in shock,” she said. “It is so exciting and energizing that the hard work I have been doing has been seen by others.”