Moving NJ Forward: Plugging Into the Power of Collaboration

Two and a half years ago, we all began to experience isolation in a way we had never imagined. It has been a troubling and frightening time for many, but for more vulnerable individuals, the shutdowns that followed the start of the COVID-19 pandemic brought on additional challenges and exacerbated the existing ones.

Community leaders across the state stepped up then – and they continue to step up now. For over a year now, the Moving NJ Forward Learning Collaborative has come together every week to strategize and exchange best practices for providing the most vulnerable communities with improved access to information about the COVID-19 vaccine and the benefits of taking it, in addition to the vaccines and boosters. Together, these partners think outside the box, nurture innovative collaborations and partnerships, and envision community-centered solutions.

Though vaccine availability has expanded across the state, the work is ongoing. Six community-based organizations that traditionally have not viewed their work as part of the community health conversation, received funding from New Jersey Health Initiatives to develop micro and mobile vaccination models with their partners. These grantees have taken time to reflect and share stories about their successes, their challenges and the ways this work is part of their organizations’ efforts to have a broader impact. They are:

  • The HUUB
  • Raritan Bay Area YMCA
  • Food Bank of South Jersey
  • Make the Road NJ
  • Greater Bergen Community Action
  • New Labor

Below, click on each grantee’s quote and name to read and watch their reflections.

“Through this work, we’ve learned that building relationships with community residents starts with earning their trust, which allows us access to educating and vaccinating community members.” – The HUUB

Orange You Vaccinated (OYV) has partnered with a number of Orange and East Orange business owners to coordinate over 50 COVID-19 vaccination events across both cities. We were also able to partner with epidemiologists, educators, community organizers and other health advocates at the local, state and national levels to help create The People’s CDC to serve as a trusted source for COVID-19 information. Over a six-month period, The HUUB and the OYV team have created new relationships with other community-based organizations that participate in the Moving NJ Forward Learning Collaborative, leading to more opportunities for collaboration and learning beyond the vaccination work.

We have built strong relationships within the communities of East Orange and Orange by bringing together a variety of organizations within the cities to gain trust and educate residents who have not yet taken the COVID-19 vaccine. Our partners in the OYV campaign include The Healthy Orange Coalition, University of Orange, Washington Shop Pharmacy, La Casa Don Pedro, The Township of Orange and the Township of East Orange. We also collaborated with the Townships of Orange and East Orange Board of Health offices, the Partnership for Maternal and Child Health of Northern New Jersey, other local pharmacies and grassroots coalitions in the community. In addition, we have received great support and referrals from our friends at CUMAC in Paterson, NJ.

City of Orange resident Miss “Sissy” Hammond

One of our most impactful relationships has been with the seniors of Oakwood Avenue, where the OYV team shared vaccination information, and in turn, was fortunate enough to hear amazing stories about the City of Orange. This work led to one of the seniors,  Miss “Sissy” Hammond, to become part of The HUUB’s “stories and dreams” project that highlights Orange residents and their true feelings about the community in which they live.

Early on in our work, we faced a challenge regarding the spread of misinformation about COVID-19 and the vaccinations among our communities. Some residents were reluctant to come out because of the misinformation, while others were confused about which recommendations they should follow. During the COVID-19 spike in the winter of 2021, many people, including our HUUB colleagues, were affected. This slowed down our interactions with the community. It also seemed that people focused more on testing than getting vaccinated due to anti-vaccination campaigns and changing guidelines from the CDC that prompted confusion.

Our work continued. After learning that some residents didn’t trust the information being provided by traditional media outlets, OYV focused on sharing more resources for vaccinations deep into the community and also participated in the creation of The People’s CDCOYV also partnered with The People’s CDC to create toolkits that answered questions for folks who wanted to feel safe during the ongoing pandemic but did not have access to straightforward and clear information.

Through this work, we’ve learned that building relationships with community residents starts with earning their trust, which allows us access to educating and vaccinating community members. This also gives us the opportunity to build a base of community members who are open to advocating for each other regarding other needs.

The locations where we set up vaccination clinics were a great opportunity to connect with different groups of people within the community. Vaccination locations should be prioritized around areas of high counts of residents who are experiencing homelessness or are not documented. We also feel that decision-makers in government should work on policies that protect everyone during a public health crisis in the future and that historically marginalized communities are prioritized for care and receiving trusted information.

– Daniel Wiley, Sharee Harrison and Ernest Lindsay, Project Leads,  The HUUB

“We must prioritize relationship-building with residents now so each time this happens, we do not have to lose precious time convincing community members that taking a vaccine or wearing a mask can help everyone.” – Raritan Bay Area YMCA

In March of 2021, Perth Amboy was one of the Middlesex County municipalities impacted most by COVID-19. Despite high mortality rates, vaccines were not arriving in Perth Amboy. While residents in nearby affluent communities were already receiving their second dose, Perth Amboy residents were still awaiting access to the first doses. With $50,000 in funding and support from New Jersey Health Initiatives, the Raritan Bay Area YMCA (YMCA) worked with our local partners to advocate for better vaccine access and within months, the vaccines became more accessible to Perth Amboy.

By that time the YMCA realized that some Perth Amboy residents were also hesitant to take the vaccine. These issues combined help explain why Perth Amboy was consistently ranked as one of the least vaccinated municipalities in New Jersey.

To address these challenges and protect our community, the YMCA and our partners created a Vaccine Ambassador program. Four bilingual community members were hired to have conversations with residents about the vaccine, in which they answered questions and debunked rumors and misinformation. The Ambassadors helped residents travel to community events to receive their vaccines. During these events, residents also had the choice to receive a hot meal, a box of food, school supplies, ice cream and a personal care package. We wanted residents to know that they could trust the YMCA and that we were having these events because we cared about their health and well-being. The YMCA partnered with the Ambassadors and local partners to vaccinate over 700 community members within a six-month time frame.

Through this program, we strengthened existing partnerships with the City of Perth Amboy, Renovation House, the American Federation of Teachers, Raritan Bay Medical Center, and the Jewish Renaissance Foundation. We also forged new partnerships with Good Health Pharmacy, Amerigroup, the Visiting Nurse Association and Target. Most importantly, we strengthened our relationships with community members. There could be future emergencies where community members will again have to come together and take important steps to promote public health. We must prioritize relationship-building with residents now so that each time this happens, we do not have to lose precious time convincing community members that taking a vaccine or wearing a mask can help everyone. Building this trust now will allow community-based organizations, such as the YMCA, to efficiently provide information and promote action.

– Steve Jobin and Brenda Crespo, Project Leads, Raritan Bay Area YMCA

“One of our Community Health Workers, recalls a gentleman pulling out his wallet and asking, ‘How do I pay for the vaccine?’ When she informed him that it was free, he smiled with a sense of relief in his eyes.” – Food Bank of South Jersey

In expanding the Food Bank of South Jersey’s (FBSJ) presence in the communities it serves, our team began looking for opportunities beyond providing food assistance, SNAP outreach, and nutrition and cooking classes. To that end, FBSJ has been able to provide more than 100 vaccinations to individuals throughout Burlington County with support from New Jersey Health Initiatives. This has been made possible by our healthcare provider partnerships with the New Jersey Black Women Physicians Association, Burlington County Health Department, DocGo, and Cooper University Health Care.

The Food Equity team is collaborating with its existing network of food distribution sites to coordinate COVID-19 vaccine clinics. By bringing clinics to locations that are already part of community members’ daily lives, this approach helps alleviate some challenges such as limited access to transportation and time constraints.

Our healthcare partners are great in creating a convenient and stress-free environment, putting people more at ease in taking the vaccine. People are able to get their questions answered, including their questions about a cost. We have learned some community members are still unaware that the COVID-19 vaccine is free. Khanam Begum, one of FBSJ’s Community Health Workers, recalls a gentleman pulling out his wallet and asking, “How do I pay for the vaccine?” When she informed him that it was free, he smiled with a sense of relief in his eyes. Justin Huleatt, another Community Health Worker, recalls the moment a woman received her booster and her friend said with enthusiasm, “She is 100 years old!” The centenarian shared that she always got her shots and focused on seeking preventive care. It was certainly a special day.

These interactions, along with many others, show the incredible impact this opportunity has presented to communities, and for FBSJ to build equity beyond food. They provide a chance for us to learn about their needs and concerns while equipping them to make well-informed decisions about their own health and that of their loved ones.

– Rose Gaano, Khanam Begum and Justin Huleatt, Project Leads, Food Bank of South Jersey

“By building the skills of dozens of low-income Latinx and immigrant leaders, who conducted outreach in their communities, we helped people connect to services and dispelled their fears.” – Make the Road NJ

– Sara Cullinane, Project Director, Make the Road NJ

“We learned that we need to go back and teach or, re-teach, community organizing at the grassroots level. It has become a lost art that we need to revive.” – Greater Bergen Community Action

By the end of 2021, our COVID-19 vaccine equity efforts had assisted well over 3000 people in getting vaccinated.  Not all were vulnerable from a housing perspective, but we were concentrating our efforts in a variety of ways with targeted groups. We definitely saw the demographics of those vaccinated change over time as our efforts accelerated. As importantly, we have formed new relationships and partnerships with service providers, faith leaders and community leaders, which continue to play out in collaborations and other services. For the housing vulnerable, we connected service providers with vaccine providers—to ensure access to appointments when those were hard to come by.  In addition, we connected the pastor of a congregation with an overwhelming number of members who are housing vulnerable to a provider who brought the vaccine to them. This phase of our work connected approximately 300 people with access to vaccinations.

Our partners include the River Mission (a congregation that serves those experiencing homelessness), Center for Hope and Safety (an organization that provides support to survivors of domestic violence) and Family Promise of Bergen County (a nonprofit that focuses on families who are housing vulnerable).  We also reached out to the various housing authorities to ensure that their building residents had access and those receiving Section 8 vouchers.

Some of the partners in our collaborative work to take the COVID-19 vaccine to the most vulnerable communities in Bergen County.


What we learned is that we need to go back and teach or, re-teach, community organizing at the grassroots level.  It has become a lost art that we need to revive. The Moving NJ Forward Learning Collaborative calls continue to be a highlight of every week. The ideas, support and talent are amazing.  We have used those calls to leverage more activity in the community.  By sharing what is happening in other counties, we have been able to get decision-makers in Bergen to move out of their comfort zone. At every step of the way, either with providers or with the community, we have leveraged personal and professional relationships to get things done. “Equity” on paper does not really translate into actual equitable access without real champions and doers on the ground.  We have to push past complacency and checking boxes, to truly provide equitable access. We are seeing the social determinants in action in this pandemic; they aren’t theoretical anymore. Partnerships are hard, especially if people feel the resources are scarce. And yet, partnerships are the only way to really make an impact. Greater Bergen Community Action is an anti-poverty organization, not a health organization or provider and yet, the providers need us to gain access to the people.

We will be designing our new strategic plan around this reality—that we can serve as a hub in a hub-and-spoke model, at the same time that we are a spoke in other efforts.

Never underestimate the importance of convening multi-sector players to see how and why they can and should collaborate.  It is time-consuming, but the results are powerful.

– Lynne Algrant, Project Director, Greater Bergen Community Action

“Mercedes, a domestic worker, received her vaccine at our partner’s walk-in clinic because she cares about her family’s well-being. ‘Domestic workers are essential workers, and to protect our families and community, we need to get vaccinated,’ she said.” – New Labor

At the Lakewood chapter of New Labor, we focus on distributing information, coordinating vaccination sites, and ensuring that low-wage Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. (BIPOC) workers in Ocean County have easy access to the COVID-19 vaccine. Our work focuses on the Latinx and Black community members of Ocean County. We approached the community with our anti-racist protocol, we talked to domestic workers about the Bill of Rights campaign and why we need to get vaccinated for the health of our community.

New Labor partnered with Ocean Health Initiatives at its Easter weekend festival at Lakewood Central Square, Lakewood, New Jersey on April 9, 2022. New Labor distributed information about the COVID-19 vaccines and the importance of why domestic workers and day laborers need to be vaccinated. Through our network, we heard stories about domestic workers who were employed in private homes, contracted COVID and became ill to the extent that they were not able to work. Some workers lost their jobs for quarantining, which is why New Labor invited the community to march with us at the New Labor Workers’ Memorial Day March and Rally. During this event, 80 people were vaccinated, including eight-year-old Ronnie!

During the Workers’ Memorial Day March and Rally on April 24 in New Brunswick, New Labor member Teresa told the crowd about how she got sick at the job around the same time her employer was sick with COVID-19. Her testimony inspired other domestic workers who were in attendance to negotiate better wages, better working conditions and prioritize their health.

Mercedes, a domestic worker, received her COVID-19 vaccine at Ocean Health Initiatives’ walk-in clinic because she cares about her family’s well-being. “Domestic workers are essential workers, and to protect our families and community, we need to get vaccinated,” she said.

This spring, New Labor was also thrilled to join the community effort to provide COVID-19 vaccinations to residents. In March, we formed street teams and canvassed downtown Lakewood. We were able to offer vaccinations to those who had previously lacked access to the vaccine. New Labor staff and volunteers canvassed nearby laundromats such as Express Laundromats and Laundry Time located near Clifton Avenue and Main Street. We met our goal of sharing trusted vaccine information with the Latinx and African American communities. They welcomed the educational materials about the COVID-19 vaccines. We also met individuals who had received one dose of the vaccine and wished to take the second dose. We referred them to our partners from Ocean Health Initiatives, who were well prepared to answer community members’ questions about vaccinations.

We take the health and safety of our employees and members, including the street teams, seriously. As part of our protocol, street teams always have six people with specific roles. The photos above show our street team that canvassed together on July 9. That team, pictured immediately above, consisted of:

  • Rosa, a neighborhood leader (front)
  • Elda, who was responsible for distributing fliers about upcoming trainings and programs (left)
  • Marcela, who distributed COVID-19 information fliers (right)
  • Doris, whose responsibility was to keep the team physically together while canvassing, (back left)
  • Martha, the team’s first aid provider in the event of an emergency (back right)

Not shown is Jen, who supervised the team. She walked behind the group to maintain an awareness of the team members’ location and activities and to be an accessible resource for them.

Together, this team shared information with the neighborhood about our Domestic Worker Bill of Rights and opened conversations with the community about vaccines and working conditions. They also distributed fliers about upcoming trainings and encouraged the community to visit their local clinic to get vaccinated.

– Mary O’Brien and Jenifer Garcia, Project Leads, New Labor

Browse travel journals from some of NJHI’s first grantees to focus on equitable access to the COVID-19 vaccine here.

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