CHELSEA — From behind a podium, Representative Ayanna Pressley pulled out a ceremonial piece of poster-board and handed it to Gladys Vega, executive director of La Colaborativa. It wasn’t quite a giant sweepstakes-style check, but it represented a windfall for the organization: $300,000 in federal funds to help connect members of communities it serves with jobs.
“They need and deserve robust investments. And they need that commitment by every level of government,” Pressley said.
“We are celebrating a day of dignity for immigrant workers,” she said, speaking in both English and Spanish to the employees and community members, and the cameras in front of her. “A day of dignity for the workers, for the people that are constantly being neglected. Finally, they will have a chance.”
It was a celebratory day at La Colaborativa, an organization that mobilized to feed, care for, and later vaccinate one of the Massachusetts communities hardest hit by the pandemic. The halls of the Broadway building echoed with cheers and applause. A line of TV cameras filled a back room, and employees gave each other giddy hugs and posed for photos.
“We cannot expect these community organizations to continue this lifesaving work on their own,” Pressley said Thursday. “Many of them are operating on a wing and a prayer and duct tape, making a dollar out of 15 cents. And they have done it. They have done it at a great personal sacrifice, because for them this is a labor of love.”
Chelsea City Manager Tom Ambrosino, too, lauded the jobs initiative. He said he hoped the money, given to La Colaborativa and the organization The Neighborhood Developers, will allow Chelsea residents to be connected with stable, well-paying jobs.
“They are going to be excellent stewards of this federal money,” he said.
Operating in Chelsea since 1988, La Colaborativa has expanded to other primarily Latino and immigrant communities around Boston — including East Boston, Everett, Lynn, Revere, and Malden. But it wasn’t until COVID-19 struck, Vega noted, that the group’s work gained wider recognition beyond the communities it serves and the people close to them.
Suddenly, Chelsea was at the pandemic’s epicenter. Its residents, including many essential workers who still left the house every day while more affluent workers sheltered at home, had the highest COVID rates in the state. Other residents found themselves without work when whole industries shut down, leaving the suddenly unemployed struggling to pay rent or feed their families.
“During the pandemic, I felt that we [in Chelsea] were not being seen,” Vega said. “I felt it over and over. We were neglected.”
Amid the sickness and fear, La Colaborativa stepped up. It launched a food assistance program that served 11,000 families a week at its peak. It lobbied state officials to block evictions after the state’s moratorium expired. The organization tried to connect with people in the food lines, figuring out their communities’ needs. Did people need help finding jobs? Getting out of abusive relationships? Helping their kids with schoolwork?
As the pandemic wore on, the group helped with vaccine clinics and reemployment initiatives.
And though the height of pandemic-related restrictions is likely behind Chelsea, the need remains, said Alex Train, Chelsea’s director of housing and community development.
“While other more affluent communities are recovering right now, with jobs rebounding and employment increasing, Chelsea isn’t,” Train said. “Chelsea has thousands of unemployed residents, and underemployed residents, who are still struggling in minimum wage jobs with labor rights violations that are very pervasive.”
One of the most pressing sectors, he said, is child care. The city saw nearly 30 percent of its local child-care organizations close permanently in the early months of the pandemic, Train said. Without reliable and affordable care, parents struggle to find work and often leave the workforce, a phenomenon that mostly affects women, Pressley noted.
Last year La Colaborativa launched a Childcare Worker Co-Op, allowing child-care workers to own a stake in their businesses.
Thursday’s celebration was a gratifying one, Vega said.
“Acknowledging our work is acknowledging our people,” Vega said in an interview Thursday. “It’s a happy moment today, to be able to receive this amount of money. But most important it what we’re going to do with the money.”
Vega ticked off initiatives the organization is working on. The federal money presented Thursday will allow La Colaborativa and The Neighborhood Developers to hire three people to act as job navigators. The role will aim to both connect unemployed and employed people with jobs, and also teach them how to create resumes and write cover letters. There’s the child-care worker co-op. And there’s a program teaching carpentry skills to a group of 20 teenagers — about 60 percent of them girls, Vega mentioned as she pointed toward a table covered in blue hard hats and tool belts.
La Colaborativa’s new building, a resource center opening on Sixth Street in Chelsea this summer, will have a teaching kitchen, where community members can train for jobs in Boston’s hotels and restaurants.
All that, she said, is part of the organization’s broader mission to lift people out of poverty. That, she said, requires a wide range of services.
“In the pandemic we were survive, survive, survive, right? Saving lives,” Vega said. “Now we sustain, sustain, sustain. How do we sustain you? What are you doing different in order for you to sustain yourself, and how can we help?”
Gal Tziperman Lotan can be reached at email@example.com or at 617-929-2043.