Half Moon Bay group extends help to Pajaro evacuees after recent tragedies

Farm workers evacuated from the massive flood in Pajaro – in Monterey County – received some much-needed help on Wednesday from another community recently rocked by tragedy – Half Moon Bay. A bus arrived bringing not only needed household supplies but also provides mental health services.

Friday will mark one month since a levee along the Pajaro River burst -- forcing a mass evacuation of the town in the middle of the night.   Many of those displaced residents have been staying at a shelter set up at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds. 

The bus, which is double-deck and painted yellow, is called the "Farmworker Equity Express."  The bus is run by a group from Half Moon Bay that specializes in providing culturally relevant medical and mental health care to underserved farm worker communities.  "We are a farmworker community in Half Moon Bay and we have been through the same things with the floods and obviously the tragedy of the mass shooting and our hearts broke seeing what was happening in Pajaro and we wanted to extend our support and say, hey, we are here with you," said Dr. Belinda Arriaga, Executive Director of Ayudando Latino A Sonar (ALAS), which operates the bus. 

On March 10, a levee broke along the Pajaro River forcing more than 2,000 residents from their homes. Many agricultural fields were flooded, resulting in no work for many in this community.  All of the students from Pajaro Middle School were forced to move to a different campus – after their school was flooded.  All in all – the stresses on daily life and living in an evacuation center are hard to comprehend  "Well it is really stressful because you are not used to your normal schedule. You had to get out of the house.  It is not the same that you used to be at the house and like it has been a month already," said Laura Reyes, an 8th grade student. 

Families were also thrilled when a team of firefighters from San Jose joined the event to hand out hundreds of toys to kids who lost everything.  "We knew that the need was here. We knew that when everyone loses everything kids lose their toys and they lose the things that make them happy and put smiles on their faces," said Chris Cobillas, with San Jose Firefighters local 230. "I am happy that they came and gave us toys for me and my family because we just appreciate it so much," Reyes said. 

Despite the appreciation for the toys – and for the household supplies --  the mental health experts who work aboard the bus also know there is still much pain and suffering behind some of the smiles seen at this event. "I think the myth that Latinos don’t want mental health counseling is actually not true. I think it is access and this is what we are doing with this bus. We are creating access for mental health it is free, they can utilize it, we have amazing clinicians that are here," said Dr. Belinda Arriaga.

SEE ALSO: Water still not safe to drink in Pajaro as Monterey County opens resource center to help with recovery

Charles Williams has been living at the evacuation center for a month. "What does it mean that the community has kind of come together to help you? It makes me feel good. Cause they have a big heart," Williams said.

As far as the organizers know, this is the only mobile bus in the nation serving the mental health needs of farm workers.  As the recovery in Pajaro continues there are plans for the bus to return to continue offering services in the area.