Health Literacy and Trustworthiness: Spotlight on Waymakers Foundation

Waymakers Foundation staff

Today, we’re spotlighting Waymakers Foundation, a food bank, community hub, and Health Equity Fund recipient that works predominantly with Hispanic and Latino communities in the greater Richmond area. Waymakers founder Natasha Lemus considers trust one of the keys to the organization’s success, which is something she’s cultivated during her 16 years of living and advocating in Richmond: “Having trust with the community is not something you can do with a pop-up event.”

Health Literacy Month highlights just how important trust is for public health. We’re all more likely to base our decisions off of information we trust. Think, for example, about the friend you call when you need advice—they’re probably someone who respects and cares for you, and whose advice has been good in the past.

In the early days of COVID-19 vaccination, a lot of publications wrote about some communities’ understandable “lack of trust” in the healthcare system, particularly in light of historical harm masquerading as healthcare like the Tuskegee experiments. Increasingly, though, health literacy specialists are calling for a change to this phrase. “What if we stopped asking about trust and began asking about trustworthiness?” says Dr. Cliff Coleman of Oregon Health & Science University. If measuring trust focuses on what a community of people does or doesn’t have, thinking about trustworthiness encourages providers and organizations to take responsibility for building and changing relationships.

Waymakers began as a food distribution center, with an emphasis on groceries that would feel familiar to Hispanic and Latino families. The care with which Natasha and her team have approached their work in food access has allowed Waymakers to expand as a site for COVID-19 testing and vaccination and as a home for resource fairs, fitness classes, youth groups, and more. Below, Natasha shares some of the lessons she’s learned about practicing trustworthiness to make sure her community can benefit from the resources that exist, particularly during a global pandemic:

Adjust your work to meet community needs 

Waymakers’ food operations began in 2020 as a standard box of groceries that matched what Hispanic families would be most likely to cook with: corn flour, dried beans, and fresh produce. Over time, the model switched to a small market, in which clients choose their own goods: “The Hispanic community is diverse,” Natasha says. “As we have more countries making RVA their home, we were packing what we still knew was culturally appropriate but not actually from their own country. So now families come in, they get a shopping cart, and they get to choose what they’re taking home. Only you know how much you need of what. We make sure everything’s fresh, everything’s ready to go. We make sure we’re giving something they can take home with dignity, at least for today.”

Direct, culturally aware communication is everything 

Natasha’s team took hard but necessary risks in working face-to-face early in the pandemic: “If we really wanted to educate our community, we had to put on the shoes and get the work done. There was just nothing else to do. You don’t want your community out there facing the pandemic in their own house. We had to let them know that this is real. And if we don’t have enough people out there to speak the language, then it’s up to us to help.”

Natasha, whose family hails from the Dominican Republic, also observes a lot of linguistic diversity among her staff and clients: “The language is different from South America to Central America. The levels of education in our community changes. We have a lot of families who speak dialect from Guatemala and none of our staff speaks that. So we have to be careful with communicating with our community. Sometimes we repeat ourselves on our posts and just word it differently, or put a visual or video to get the communication in.”

Be consistent: do what you say you’re going to do  

 Waymakers became a site for people to access Spanish-language COVID-19 testing and vaccination services. Once again, Natasha and her staff depended on their communication skills:

“Our job was to change the mindset, and we opened up the spot for partners to do vaccination here. And in the beginning, the community did not react positively to that. I had to say ‘this is free, I will not ask for any of your information, we will speak to you in your native language. Come in and get checked.’ Then families would come.

We had to give people the details before they came in—they’d really want to know, ‘are you going to swab in my nose or in my mouth?’ If you’re telling someone that they’re going to walk in and get a test that swabs in their mouth, you better have that in their mouth. Because as soon as you start touching their nose they’re going to refuse and then say ‘In this center, they lie. I did not want anything in my nose.’”

Set expectations to make sure everyone gets what they need 

Natasha’s values are front and center in the way she trains her staff and works with clients: “We are going to serve you, and we are going to make sure that we are serving you with respect and that we’re being respected,” she says. This policy extends to clients who may get frustrated about hours or food availability. With a client like that, Natasha tells her staff, “We don’t know what she’s going through. We don’t know what happened last night or that morning that maybe she had to buy more groceries. Yes, she came last week—can we ask her what her need is again? Can we supplement what she’s missing, can we find another way?”

As Natasha and her team work to make the market and their space sustainable for community activities and resources, they’re encouraging clients to come to them. For clients who may be hesitant to gather in the COVID-19 landscape, Natasha says, “it’s time to come in. COVID will stay, it’s another thing we have to have on our list, just like the flu. We know it exists and we need to continue with precautions. But now, it’s [also] mental health awareness and oral care, it’s everything. We are doing the work to inform you of where we are. Come and restore the pieces together.”

For more information about accessing services, joining programs, or volunteering through Waymakers, visit their website or call 804-920-0059. And Natasha says Waymakers is “a model that I’m hoping others can copy in their own communities. If you can work in an area like Petersburg or Hopewell that I can’t get to, then ask me how I’m doing it, and I’ll share my story so you can help the community on the other side.”