GARDEN CITY, Kan. (KSNW) – What happens when language differences get in the way of understanding the facts pertaining to the COVID-19 vaccine? That’s the challenging reality many in southwest Kansas were facing until two medical professionals came together to start breaking down the barrier.
“It’s a heavy privilege to be in medicine right now, ” said southwest Kansas physician assistant, Erin Keeley.
Erin Keeley and Rachael Svaty are medical professionals practicing in southwest Kansas, one of the most diverse places in the state. Not only do the cities make up the densest Hispanic populations in the state, but the communities constitute of racial backgrounds as diverse as Asian, African-American, American Indian, and Native Hawaiian descent according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Many consider the area as a melting pot.
“The variety of different cultures and populations in Garden City and southwest Kansas are so important and so valuable that we want everyone to have access to good information so they can truly make an informed decision,” said southwest Kansas family medicine physician, Rachael Svaty.
Keeley and Svaty have seen the varying backgrounds first-hand. Along with practicing in the Garden City and Lakin areas, the women are also well immersed in the refugee community, and upon realizing language barriers were leading to misinformation and lack of knowledge about COVID vaccines, the women volunteered their time to find a solution.
“We had heard lots of rumors that were scaring people that were not based on research or medical facts. I think it just became really apparent the need for resources for people to be able to understand in their own language what is true and what is important about vaccines to be able to make good decisions for themselves and for their families,” said Keeley.
It started as a late-night idea to create one informative video for their Somali neighbors next door in their native language, but after talking to colleagues and friends connected to other language groups, they realized there was a greater need.
“It’s easy to answer vaccine questions in English, it’s easy to answer even in Spanish with an interpreter, but those questions are not easily answered for many of the languages that are represented here,” said Svaty.
The U.S. Census Bureau data shows communities in the ‘Kansas Triangle’ — Dodge City, Garden City, and Liberal — nearly half of the population speaks a language other than English.
In Dodge City, 55.6% of the population speaks Spanish, 1% speaks Indo-European languages, 1.8% speaks Asian and Pacific Island languages, and 0.8% speak a language other than that.
In Garden City, 39.5% of the population speaks Spanish, 0.9% speaks Indo-European languages, 4.8% speaks Asian and Pacific Island languages, and 2.1% speak a language other than that.
Lastly, in Liberal, 54.7% of the population speaks Spanish, 0.6% speaks Indo-European languages, 2.2% speaks Asian and Pacific Island languages, and 2.1% speak a language other than that.
The one video idea turned into a YouTube channel titled, ‘It’s a beautiful day in our neighborhood,’ with multiple videos aimed to help thousands.
“We wanted to create resources so that people could have educational information in their own language and be able to understand that and make an informed decision about getting the COVID-19 vaccine,” said Svaty.
The channel has 11 vaccine-related videos that address concerns and common questions.
“We try to do the videos like a question and answer conversation so that hopefully it will be easy to listen to and easy to understand,” said Svaty.
One video is in English, and the other 10 videos are in the languages of Arabic, English, Tigrinya, Karen, Vietnamese, Rohingya, Quiche, Pleutdeutsch, Burmese, Spanish, and Somali.
“It seems like a random group of languages, but we chose them because these are who our neighbors are and these are the languages that they speak,” said Keeley. “It’s pretty amazing that some of these languages that seem really unusual or obscure are spoken by people that live next door to us. I think that just speaks to the beauty and diversity of our community here in southwest Kansas.”
The videos are translated by both medical professionals and volunteer community interpreters.
“Our friends work with people who speak several different languages at Tyson and were able to ask their friends and coworkers to interpret for us. It was minority leaders in one language who found us connections to interpret in ten other languages,” said Keeley.
The initiative has quickly gained steam. Local organizations have jumped on board providing support and resources such as recording spaces and informational fliers. “It’s been a series of small conversations and big yes’s from people in the community who care about our neighbors,” said Keeley.
Minority leaders have also helped overcome the challenges of reaching different racial groups. They have helped Keeley and Svaty share the videos in communities they are less connected in, enabling the project to broaden its impact.
“We’ve really enjoyed the feedback from our interpreters when we’ve gotten to send them the videos, and they’ve honestly been the most effective channel in terms of sharing with friends and neighbors trying to serve our friends and neighbors,” said Keeley.
The first video was released two weeks ago while others, just three days ago. But in a short amount of time, the series has made an impact. It has been watched more than 1,500 times already and numerous people have reached out to Keeley and Svaty about the videos and how they have helped their communities.
“It’s been such a blessing to be apart of this and to be able to see community leaders within their own cultural groups and ethnicities rise up and say ‘yes’ I want to do this video to be able to educate my community,” said Svaty.