Like many nonprofits across the region, Chinese Mutual Aid Association (CMAA) has moved its work online in response to the city and state’s social-distancing guidelines.  

Since the change, CMAA has been utilizing technology to stay connected with some of its clients and their families, who are largely immigrants and refugees.

But reaching everyone hasn’t been easy. 

“Not everyone has technology like laptops and smartphones. Some don’t have internet access or the digital literacy to use these platforms. It’s a real barrier to folks,” said Morlie Patel, Associate Director of CMAA. “But we’ve been really creative and are finding solutions.”

Among the organization’s successes has been its teen mentorship group. Instead of meeting on-site every other Friday evening, the “Young Women Warriors” group chats on Zoom. 

The young women — 12 to 18 years old — and their adult mentors, who are women of color and working professionals, meet online to build social connections and create a network of support for each other. They host workshops about important topics like women’s health. 

While the group had to cancel its outdoor team-building activities, it has added one-on-one and small group calls. Mentors call their mentees to check in on their wellness and inquire if they and their families need assistance. 

“The move online has been really successful so far,” said Margaret Smith, CMAA’s youth department manager. “I think a lot of our young people are really seeking connections right now. They’re very isolated, more than they ever are in their daily lives. [This program] allows them to maintain some normalcy and stability in a very abnormal time.” 

While the young participants have smoothly transitioned to the digital world, CMAA’s adult learners and those who need help with immigration paperwork and applications have faced difficulties. 

Since they can’t meet in a classroom for English lessons, ESL teachers are offering virtual classes to keep students engaged and learning. They even send learning packets to students by mail and correct homework via text. 

But some families don’t have the technology or internet access needed to utilize these platforms. Many of the adult students are also parents who are now at home with their kids who are out of school. Dedicating time to their lessons can prove impossible when their attention is needed elsewhere. 

“It was already challenging for a lot of our clients to be able to take that time for themselves,” said Alana Slezak, CMAA’s manager of civics and community integration. “Now some people are having to learn technology and trying to learn English at the same time.” 

“Our teachers are adapting to that. They’re repeating lessons and getting creative about how they’re going over things,” Alana added. “But our expectations of students and how much they can output has adjusted.” 

The digital transition has also posed challenges to CMAA’s assistance program for citizenship applications. Application forms are complicated and hard to complete over the phone, and clients may not feel comfortable disclosing certain information on a call like they would if they were meeting in person. 

CMAA’s team is working diligently to address these and other issues across their service spectrum. They call clients and survey their needs, and they’re connecting them to both technology and financial assistance during this difficult time. 

To aid CMAA’s efforts, the organization received a grant from the Chicago Community COVID-19 Response Fund. The Response Fund was launched by United Way of Metro Chicago and The Chicago Community Trust, in partnership with the City of Chicago, to bring relief to agencies on the front lines of this crisis.

CMAA has also applied for other grants to provide rent relief and to get technology in the hands of their clients. Its Associate Board is planning a technology drive, too, to round up laptop and phone donations. 

“I’m really proud of our staff and management team. I’ve been inspired to see how [they] have been able to just be versatile and changing,” Morlie said, highlighting Margaret’s “pivot to Zoom” and Alana’s ability to solve problems that have arisen during the move to digital classrooms. 

“This is not our normal work. None of this is our normal work, so you never know how that’s gonna go. We’ve definitely hit some snags, but we learn from them and try our best.” 

You can help nonprofits and community organizations respond to their neighbors’ varying needs during this difficult time. Donate to the Chicago Community COVID-19 Response Fund today!