LEWISTON — With the start of a new school year just two weeks away, downtown awareness efforts regarding COVID-19 are taking a slightly different tack.

Volunteers working within a coalition of organizations on outreach to the new Mainer community spent Thursday handing out masks and information on school reopening. They want the community prepared as a new school year begins during the pandemic.

“We want to get the kids and their families used to consistent mask wearing before school officially opens,” said Fowsia Musse, executive director of Maine Community Integration.

Maine Community Integration is leading a coalition calling itself Barefoot Community Health Outreach Workers, made up of five local organizations.

Ever since pandemic figures showed that Maine has the worst racial disparity among positive cases in the nation, Lewiston officials and health organizations have been ramping up outreach efforts.

On Thursday, the coalition included volunteers from the Lewiston School Department, including teachers from McMahon Elementary helping with the distribution.

Araksan Egueh, an educational technician at Connors Elementary School, was among the volunteers going door to door.

Volunteers Siad Shaleh, left, Tim Smith and Araksan Egueh go door to door Thursday passing out personal protective equipment in a Lewiston neighborhood. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Egueh, who volunteers with the Djiboutian American Community Empowerment Project, said they want the community to know what to expect when school begins, including a normalization of mask-wearing. They also want to know what their needs are as school returns, including anything from translation to transportation.

“We try to be next to them when they need us, to fill the gap between the community and our community members,” she said.

Egueh speaks multiple languages, which can be an asset during outreach sessions like these. A Lewiston resident, she said she’s seen community members this summer not practicing social distancing and mask-wearing, and that the outreach is also intended to “normalize” face coverings before students are required to wear them at school.

She said for some students, it will be easy. For those with special needs, she said, it may be more of a challenge — making outreach sessions even more important.

Fowsia Musse is one of the volunteers from the New Mainer community whol helped pass out personal protective equipment in a Lewiston nighborhood on Thursday. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

According to its Facebook page, Barefoot Community Health Outreach Workers was formed to “help new Mainers, and those who already serve new Mainers, to be able to share culturally sensitive resources on COVID-19 prevention, symptoms, and self-management.”

Representatives from the new Mainer community have said language barriers and the stigma and access surrounding testing and masking have contributed to the slow response.

Earlier in August, the city received a second round of grant funding from the state, and said it would dedicate more than $150,000 to outreach efforts. The city’s grant application stated Lewiston “clearly underestimated the amount of public outreach needed to educate our new Mainer population.”

Egueh said young students who have not yet been outside their own family bubble will have to get used to wearing masks. They have not yet learned to wear a mask in public. She said because her 4-year-old son has been attending a preschool program, he’s already comfortable.

“His teacher was proud of him because he wore his mask,” she said. “Kids tend to not understand it because they don’t see it. It’s about knowing the consequences.”

Leading up to the outreach, Egueh was hoping for cooperation. She said going door to door “is never easy.”

“But, we’re trying our best to communicate with them, and just let them know that it’s our job to keep our community safe,” she said.

A day after the outreach session, Musse said it “went well,” with the coalition handing out personal protective equipment like masks, gloves and hand sanitizer. She said the effort is “serving the interests of both longtime residents and new Mainers.”

“It was successful and we intend to do something like this again in the upcoming few weeks,” she said.

Know someone with a deep well of unlimited public spirit? Someone who gives of their time to make their community a better place? Then nominate them for Kudos. Send their name and the place where they do their good deeds to reporter Andrew Rice at [email protected] and we’ll do the rest.

Volunteer Sadik Lag hands a woman a few face masks Thursday while passing out personal protective equipment in a Lewiston neighborhood. Siad Shaleh, left, and Tim Smith helped pass out PPE. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

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