How COVID-19 forced a Christian Welfare Program in Chile to become Virtual and the Unexpected Outcomes
The Global Pandemic COVID-19 brought many non-profit organizations either to a stand-still or to the realization that their planned activities had to be drastically modified in order to continue operating under new government and health guidelines. As programs quickly confronted new realities, they were also faced with the degree to which changes should be implemented. Should these be temporary quick-fixes or lasting changes that would forever alter how programs would operate? Should we wait to get back to normal, or are we creating the new normal? Could the new normal be better than our original plans?
This past year Kingdom Workers Chile (KW Chile) faced these same questions and realities and responded by modifying their program to be completely virtual. The outcomes of this transition have forever changed the scope and quality of the program for the better. https://kingdomworkers.com
THE WELLNESS CIRCLE PROGRAM PRIOR TO COVID-19
At Kingdom Workers, we are willing to do whatever it takes to connect communities to Christ. God’s love is holistic, impacting a person’s life here and now, physically and spiritually. We believe that true and lasting healing is the result of gospel testimony interwoven with human care.
So, what does this look like in Chile?
Meaningful Local relationships
In 2019 Kingdom Workers partnered with leaders of the Lutheran Church in Linares and with community leaders to complete a Formal Community Assessment in order to determine what needs were present in the church’s community. We discovered that 75% of adults and 51.58% of children in Chile are obese and that 66% of the population is inactive. In addition, according to the International Diabetes Foundation, 9.8% of Chile’s adult population were diagnosed with diabetes which does not include the number unexamined or those with prediabetes. The assessment team saw these devastating statistics as an opportunity to love their neighbors through a faith-based wellness program. Together with community leaders, KW Chile constantly modifies the program in order to best serve others and to empower community leaders to be the driving force in all program activities.
At the beginning of 2020, KW Chile launched the Wellness Circle program which includes three basic areas:
- Christian Coaches are trained and supported by KW to establish Wellness Circles and to guide small groups of people to achieve habit-changes in nutrition and fitness in order to prevent chronic disease like obesity and diabetes. Coaches are community leaders who love their Lord and who desire to show His love to others.
- Wellness Circles led by KW Coaches invite community members into a trusted community that shares best practices, provides accountability, positive social structure, and ongoing support. During Wellness Circle sessions, Coaches elicit behavior change conversations and address barriers that participants face in their health journeys. Wellness Circles are sources of support and strength for participants and their families.
- Wellness Circles are complemented by community workshops led by local professional doctors, nurses, nutritionists, and counselors sharing evidence-based preventive care strategies.
Sharing Jesus’ healing love and redemption is at the center of every interaction at KW Chile. The Wellness Circle program integrates biblical truths into every single session providing the motivation for behavior change based on Jesus’ love for His children and their desire to be good stewards of His blessings for them and their families. Faith and the role of Jesus in the lives of the participants is integrated through the Coaches in a way that emphasizes the God of grace in everyday living. In addition, most KW Chile activities are run out of the church property, connecting participants to the Lutheran church and its members. Participants are also invited to Bible studies and church activities.
In January of 2020, the Wellness Circle Program began and operated as planned for 2.5 months. It looked much like this:
THE ARRIVAL OF COVID-19 AND THE IMMEDIATE TRANSITION TO A VIRTUAL PROGRAM
The arrival of COVID-19 brought unforeseen changes to Chile. Beginning in March and until this writing, schools have remained closed. Masks are obligatory in all indoor and outdoor public spaces while curfew and gathering restrictions continue to be in place. Depending on statistics, communities fluctuate between lock-down quarantine and reentry protocols. Socially, many Chileans respect the COVID-19 restrictions and even follow self-imposed quarantine measures for as long as possible.
Although the city of Linares did not enter lock-down quarantine until September, KW Chile immediately suspended its in-person activities following the suite of other community health, education, and faith groups. While communication with the pilot group was still maintained through WhatsApp, we now had to figure out how to continue meeting together in a way that would continue to develop a supportive community. In addition, the program’s supplementary activities like group exercise opportunities, partnering with local health professionals, and community workshops could no longer take place as had been previously planned.
Virtual Adaptation Strategy
During program planning, we had never considered online elements as a part of our program apart from an informative social media presence and WhatsApp group communications. We desired to build and develop healthy communities within our Wellness Circles, and culturally Chileans in our region greatly value relationships and quality time spent face-to-face. However, COVID-19 ushered in a unique opportunity when Chileans continued to desire face-to-face time but were physically restricted. While previously technology might have been viewed as a cold or unreal way to gather in community, it suddenly was a blessing sought by many.
Most Chileans in Linares have access to a web-accessible cell phone or a computer in their homes. Within a week, we decided to transition the pilot group to a virtual Zoom platform. We initially used the free version of Zoom. With many phone calls, practices, and initial delays in starting due to participants learning the log-in process with audio and video, we finally got everyone online for our first virtual session. While we certainly didn’t get to all the planned content, participants were thrilled to see each other and to pray together, as the unknowns of COVID-19 were heavy. After a couple sessions, participants were comfortable with the platform and were especially thankful to be able to continue meeting from the safety of their own homes. In fact, the most common comment written on each session’s “Exit Survey” was “We need to meet more!” Zoom suddenly made the idea of additional gatherings feasible in everyone’s schedules.
As the weeks of restrictions dragged on, we bought a professional Zoom account and began to realize other opportunities that the platform brought. We began meeting again with local healthcare professionals, collaborating or presenting on the program. We completed interviews through Zoom. A fitness instructor from Santiago, 3.5 hours away from our city began volunteering with us by leading modified workouts through Zoom for interested Wellness Circle participants.
In addition to Zoom, suddenly our Facebook page became an essential piece of our program. Community healthcare partners volunteered to create short preventive-care videos with us. The videos not only increased our online audience, but also the number of our community partnerships. Facebook is widely accessible and easy to stream. Because of this, we converted our Community Workshops to Facebook Live Sessions. Together with healthcare professionals, we crafted sessions that pushed audience members to interact with the message being shared.
The positive impact of many of the virtual modifications that were made was quickly noticed by the KW Chile team as well as by the Wellness Circle participants. While changes had been made from necessity and a desire for the program simply to survive the COVID-19 climate, they surprisingly fostered greater interest in our program and opportunities for expansion. By July, we had completely restructured the original model of the Wellness Circle to include permanently many of the virtual features recently adapted.
Throughout the program, and during our final celebratory get-together, participants were encouraged to share their opinions of the experience. One participant shared his joy in gathering with others regularly and his love of being encouraged by a Christian community, “The more I am in the Word, the more I want to live it and to share it.” Another commented on her realization that her personal health often took the back burner in her life, “I have made improvements! I still have more to improve, but I know that I have grown and will continue to grow.” Another shared, “There is no doubt that being a part of this initiative has helped me improve my wellness both physically and spiritually. I am thankful for each reflection in the Word of God. I felt accompanied in the process, strengthened by God.” Even a participant who was unable fully to complete the Circle due to scheduling changes was supportive: “Thank you so much for allowing me to get to know you. The program seems excellent to me even though I was not able to fully participate at the end. I began positive changes in my eating habits, and I have continued them.” Of the participants in the pilot Wellness Circle, two have officially trained with KW Chile and are now continuing their own wellness growth while encouraging others as coaches.
The KW Chile team saw drastic changes to their operations once moving online. Growth in our online activities fostered growth in community engagement and knowledge of the program as seen through interactions on our Facebook page. Whereas previously the team had to recruit for volunteers and participants, now more people were beginning to seek information about Kingdom Workers themselves. Upon posting a volunteer job application online for a nutritionist, we received 12 applicants from all over Chile. A psychologist contacted us, desiring to know how she could be a part of the program.
However, the greatest impact of moving online has been the accessibility to our program. People tuned into the Community Healthcare Workshops from all over Chile. One online workshop has 8,100 partial or complete views, and approximately 25 individuals actively participate in each of the online workshops. Upon opening the registration for the next round of Wellness Circles, we received applicants from cities throughout Chile as well as applicants from communities where we have sister churches in Colombia and the Dominican Republic. By simply moving our program online, interest grew, volunteer and participant interest grew, and the potential scope of our program grew as well.
Quickly transitioning our program to a virtual platform has brought us several challenges. First, several elderly community members who have interest in participating in a Wellness Circle did not sign up because of technology limitations. Second, internet complications have caused a couple participants to not be able to complete a Wellness Circle simply because they did not have good connection from their homes especially after we went under quarantine and many more people were online. Lastly, we had to quickly support and train Coaches in how to communicate virtually and navigate building relationships virtually. With time we are prayerful that some of these limitations will be greatly reduced especially once we have the opportunity to host some Circles in-person again.
CONCLUSION AND NEXT STEPS
Experiencing the Pilot Wellness Circle during a global pandemic forced us to make immediate changes to our program. While the intent of the program did not change, our implementation and some of the supporting activities and content did. Although we are still currently operating virtually as COVID-19 restrictions continue, we know moving forward that we will maintain several virtual elements including:
- Online supplementary activities like fitness accountability groups
- Facebook Live workshops and videos featuring Wellness Habits with community healthcare experts
- Virtual Wellness Circle opportunities for participants who live far away or have scheduling/travel/family complications.
- Coaches training/support can continue through a hybrid of online/in-person sessions.
God is good, and He works in all things. We feel incredibly blessed to be able to serve our neighbors in Chile especially now through using the wonderful gift of technology. We are thankful for what we have learned, and we are hopeful that technology will continue allowing us to connect others to a supportive health and faith community. To God be the glory!
If you would like to learn more about Kingdom Workers Chile or how you can join or support our ministry, I would love to talk with you! Please feel free to email me.
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