Durham nonprofit brings tranquility to Spanish-speaking community during COVID-19

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- The sounds of a flowing stream and happy kids fill the air in a most unlikely place - next to the parking lot in the Lakewood Shopping Center.

El Futuro, a nonprofit mental health and substance use treatment clinic has created a new therapeutic garden complete with a recycling creek, brilliant mural and community garden.

"What we hope this becomes is a place of community connection where people can form relationships, which is really at the heart of mental illness in the immigrant community," said Dr. Luke Smith, Executive Director at El Futuro. "People have lost supportive healthy relationships, maybe because of mental illness but sometimes just because of immigration."

Smith is a psychiatrist who started El Futuro in 2004 as a place where Spanish-speaking immigrants can get culturally-responsive mental health services at clinics in Durham and Siler City.

The staff of fifty serves up to 1,800 people a year.

"In this coronavirus time just getting outside, not being so locked up inside in small living conditions and being able to be in the weather is really helpful and therapeutic," Smith said.

FULL CORONAVIRUS COVERAGE

Volunteers from the Lakewood neighborhood, like Tonnie Markham, donated time and money to help create the therapeutic garden.

Kids call her "abuela," grandmother in English, and she sees firsthand the calming effect of the garden.

"Tranquil, peace, a place to come, a place to feel safe," said Markham. "We all have to live in harmony, we need to work in harmony, we are family."

COVID-19 has been devastating to North Carolina's Hispanic community.

About 25 percent of the state's cases are among Hispanics, who makeup 10 percent of the population.

"This has been very challenging for the Hispanic community because they often live in poverty and have poor working conditions, and they don't have health insurance," said Cecilia Barja, a board member at El Futuro. "It has been a real struggle for so many people."

Dr. Smith sees how his patients are also feeling the impact of the global pandemic in their home countries.

"I have a lady who is a patient of mine and she's one of nine siblings and three of them have died this summer from the coronavirus," said Smith. "They are in Mexico so she can't migrate back and go be with them."

Smith was inspired to create El Futuro while in training at UNC-Chapel Hill.

He saw a need for mental health treatment in the Spanish speaking community and responded by watching Telenovelas as a tool to become bilingual.

"I feel some amount of pride but I also just feel super fortunate to be part of this," said Smith. "It swept me along with it."
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