GARDEN CITY – What happens when language differences get in the way of understanding the facts pertaining to the COVID-19 vaccine? That’s the challenging reality many in southwest Kansas were facing until two medical professionals came together to start breaking down the barrier.
"It’s a heavy privilege to be in medicine right now," said physician assistant Erin Keeley.
Keeley and her colleague Rachael Svaty are medical professionals practicing in southwest Kansas, one of the most diverse places in the state. The area has one of the densest Hispanic populations in Kansas; it's also home to large Somali, Burmese, Ethiopian and Laotian communities.
"The variety of different cultures and populations in Garden City and southwest Kansas are so important and so valuable that we want everyone to have access to good information so they can truly make an informed decision," Svaty said.
Keeley and Svaty have seen the varying backgrounds first-hand working with immigrant and refugee populations in the area. Upon realizing language barriers were leading to misinformation and lack of knowledge about COVID-19 vaccines, the two volunteered their time to find a solution.
"We had heard lots of rumors that were scaring people that were not based on research or medical facts," Keeley said. "I think it just became really apparent the need for resources for people to be able to understand in their own language what is true and what is important about vaccines to be able to make good decisions for themselves and for their families."
It started as a late-night idea to create one informative video for their Somali neighbors next door in their native language, but after talking to colleagues and friends connected to other language groups, Keeley and Svaty realized there was a greater need.
"It’s easy to answer vaccine questions in English, it’s easy to answer even in Spanish with an interpreter," Svaty said, "but those questions are not easily answered for many of the languages that are represented here."
U.S. Census Bureau data shows among communities in the "Kansas Triangle" — Dodge City, Garden City, and Liberal — nearly half of the population speaks a language other than English.
In Dodge City, 55.6% of the population speaks Spanish, 1% speaks Indo-European languages, 1.8% speaks Asian and Pacific Island languages, and 0.8% speak a language other than that.
In Garden City, 39.5% of the population speaks Spanish, 0.9% speaks Indo-European languages, 4.8% speaks Asian and Pacific Island languages, and 2.1% speak a language other than that.
And in Liberal, 54.7% of the population speaks Spanish, 0.6% speaks Indo-European languages, 2.2% speaks Asian and Pacific Island languages, and 2.1% speak a language other than that.
That first video turned into a YouTube channel titled "It’s a beautiful day in our neighborhood," with multiple videos aimed to help thousands.
“We wanted to create resources so that people could have educational information in their own language,” Svaty said.
The channel has 11 vaccine-related videos that address common concerns and questions.
“We try to do the videos like a question and answer conversation so that hopefully it will be easy to listen to and easy to understand,” Svaty said.
The videos are in English, Arabic, English, Tigrinya, Karen, Vietnamese, Rohingya, Quiche, Pleutdeutsch, Burmese, Spanish, and Somali.
"It seems like a random group of languages, but we chose them because these are who our neighbors are and these are the languages that they speak," Keeley said. "It’s pretty amazing that some of these languages that seem really unusual or obscure are spoken by people that live next door to us.
"I think that just speaks to the beauty and diversity of our community here in southwest Kansas."
The videos are translated by both medical professionals and volunteer community interpreters.
"Our friends work with people who speak several different languages at Tyson and were able to ask their friends and coworkers to interpret for us," Keeley said. "It was minority leaders in one language who found us connections to interpret in ten other languages."
The initiative has quickly gained steam. Local organizations have jumped on board providing support and resources such as recording spaces and informational fliers.
"It’s been a series of small conversations and big yeses from people in the community who care about our neighbors," Keeley said.
And those community partners have also helped overcome the challenges of reaching different racial groups Keeley and Svaty don't work with as often.
"We’ve really enjoyed the feedback from our interpreters when we’ve gotten to send them the videos, and they’ve honestly been the most effective channel in terms of sharing with friends and neighbors trying to serve our friends and neighbors," Keeley said.
Since the first video was released two weeks ago, the series has been watched more than 1,500 times. Keeley and Svaty say numerous people have reached out about the videos and how they have helped their communities.
"It’s been such a blessing to be a part of this," Svaty said, "and to be able to see community leaders within their own cultural groups and ethnicities rise up and say, 'Yes, I want to do this video to be able to educate my community.'"
This story was produced as part of the Wichita Journalism Collaborative, a partnership of seven media companies, including KMUW, working together to bring timely and accurate news and information to Kansans.