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  • Karen Barnes Kaplan

FORTE House Resident Nelson Fights COVID--and Bias--from “The Front Lines”


Nelson describes his volunteer work at an Essex County COVID-19 vaccination site as “very exciting and fulfilling.” For Nelson, it’s not only a chance to contribute to the health and safety of his community; it has opened up new experiences of connecting with people in breakthrough ways. Here’s a lightly edited version of how Nelson himself recently talked about his experience.


This has been such a great team experience. At the vaccine site, we have the medical professionals from Aveanna --the nurses, mostly, who do the actual administration of the shots--and the volunteers, EMTs, supervisors, county people. And we’re all here working together, helping each other, cheering each other. The Aveanna regional supervisor, Nick Gaeta, comes to the site to check in on us and always offers encouragement.


On my first day after training, I was assigned to directing people to whatever station they should go to. There are five stations: pre-registration, registration, vaccination--which is staffed by nurses-- charting, and observation. Each station has volunteers doing different things, and over time I noticed that we had a constant change in volunteers. So I suggested to my supervisor, Kimberly Robinson, that she train me on every station. This way, I could train others on whatever station they were assigned to. She liked the idea, and she did train me! And Nick Gaeta from Aveanna liked my attitude and leadership so much that he petitioned me to be an "on-site supervisor" for Aveanna. Between Nick and Kim, I can't imagine better supervisors.


From the very first day, I've been meeting people, helping people: volunteers and the public alike. Some people are terrified of needles, or of getting sick. I try to comfort them, encourage them. One woman was crying because she felt guilty. Her husband had died of COVID, and she had lived long enough to get the vaccine. I just stood with her, listened to her. I told her she’s not alone in feeling that way. By the end, she was smiling and thanking me. That’s very fulfilling. And that happened my first day.


My faith is very strong. I have a relationship with God, and I communicate with him--and he communicates with me. I see his presence in my being here at the vaccine site. For example, my first week I met Lieutenant Ed Carvalho. This was the first encounter I’d had with a policeman since my release, and I was a little freaked out at first. We met at the coffee station and he was being so nice, easy going: “Do you take sugar?” and “How’s it going?” It felt strange. I wondered, if he knew my past would he treat me the same?


The next time we met, on a break, he was asking me about myself and I decided to take a leap of faith. I told him my story: I’d been incarcerated for 17 years, now I was going to school working through the whole re-entry process and learning to build healthy relationships. He was amazed! And he was so encouraging to me. I realized that the residue of incarceration didn’t have to taint my image. I could shed all those old layers. I was becoming the person I want to be.


Lieutenant Carvalho went on to introduce me to Sheriff Fontoura, the Essex County Sheriff. I spoke with him briefly and he was very supportive of me. I had a similar experience with the presiding judge of the Essex County Family Division, Judge Sallyanne Floria. She came to volunteer, and my supervisor assigned me to train her. That was an honor! Judge Floria also asked about me, and I decided to open up with her, not beat around my past but just be vulnerable and come from experience. At first, she seemed to be in disbelief, but she saw the good in me. That’s when I discovered who she is. And again, not just open-minded but actively on my side. She, Lieutenant Carvalho, and Sheriff Fontoura were saying things like, “You can’t give up.” They want me to succeed.


This is why I’m a firm believer that God designed this opportunity. I’m talking to people who can look at my past and not see it as a repellent--in fact, just the opposite. Instead of seeing me as someone on “the other side of the line,” and instead of judging me, they’re seeing me as someone who has overcome some things. And that is really helping me break those old patterns of how I see myself through their eyes.


I just completed my certification as an auto-mechanic, and I’m glad; I’m proud. I like that kind of work. But that’s not my dream. I want to create a re-entry program run by psychologists, that provides the kind of therapy and group counseling and peer mentors that I know from personal experience make a difference. I was a kid when I was incarcerated; I spent 6 years of my 17 years in prison in “ad seg”--administrative segregation, which is basically solitary. A typical cycle for a lot of people is you’re let out of ad seg, and within six months you have some kind of violation, and you’re back in lock-up. I was part of a program in the prison that was working to fight that kind of recidivism from within. I had therapy sessions, group sessions, and I became a peer facilitator myself. The psychologists were volunteers; the system only provides psychological services for people with special needs. There’s no funding for psych support for someone like me. So my therapist was there because she was passionate about her work. I’m so grateful for that help.


So now, I want to eventually get my Bachelor’s degree in psychology and create the same kind of help for people preparing for re-entry, and going through it. This experience working at the vaccine site has shown me that God is very much with me on this journey. Because, in my job here, I’m encountering people I never thought would understand, never thought would support me. But I’m learning, yes they do.


And the work itself: Getting the whole country vaccinated against a deadly virus? This is one of the greatest wars of the century that we’re fighting. I feel like I’m on the front lines of that war. I’m so honored to be here.