Christian Vincent, a pastor from Plymouth and native of Liberia, joined the newly formed cultural services unit (CSU) in Brooklyn Center last year. The volunteer-driven CSU aims to help immigrant and refugee populations during large-scale emergencies.

“It opened a wonderful conversation about how we cannot only rely on emergency staff but help our own families in case of emergency” and try to prevent them too, said Vincent, who came to the U.S. several decades ago.

Whether it’s about dealing with the harsh Minnesota winter or reacting to a fire, “once you have a little knowledge about what to do, you might not panic as much,” Vincent said. For him personally, the training “makes me feel much safer, more aware,” he added.

That speaks to the goals behind CSU, which is now coming to Brooklyn Park. To get things started, the city is looking for up to 20 multicultural volunteers “to support disaster recovery and outreach activities,” according to program materials. Volunteers will also be plugged into Hennepin County’s medical reserve corps, which responds to various public health needs. The CSU’s six-week training program begins Monday, May 6.

Brooklyn Park Fire Chief Ken Prillaman said the training exposes people “to the inside playbook, what we do, how do we pull in various resources” and how they can help, he said.

In the case of a tornado, for example, the city has to curtail various hazards, like gas leaks, and prevent things like looting, all the while coordinating personnel. “Most people don’t understand how much it takes for a community to recover from an event like that.” It takes hundreds of hours of labor, Prillaman said.

CSU invests in volunteers who can augment that response, he said. Volunteers act as “a liaison that can work and make that connection between the city and the populations we serve,” he said. This is especially meaningful in a city where 21 percent of residents are foreign-born and many have limited English skills. “Many people don’t know where or how to find resources” in the case of a flood, a building collapse or a fire, among other events, he said.

Likewise, “A lot of folks may not be comfortable approaching police or fire departments with questions,” he said.

That’s where the CSU comes in. Having point people who speak the language and know the culture “helps us to respond to different groups.” It also offers an opportunity for the city to get insight into the groups it serves, Prillaman said.

For example, some immigrant populations have strict guidelines around funerals held on the sabbath. Those traditions can often get lost in the midst of an emergency, where responders are focused on the immediate challenges. “Having folks advise us on how best to respond, given the differences, is very beneficial,” Prillaman said.

A pilot program last year

Lillian McDonald, executive director for ECHO (Emergency and Community Health Outreach) — the St. Paul nonprofit organization that developed the curriculum in partnership with Hennepin County — said CSU began as a pilot program last year in Brooklyn Center. Minneapolis established a CSU afterward.

The tornado that ripped through north Minneapolis in 2011 triggered the idea. Although there were various efforts to reach diverse groups amid the destruction, “I wondered whether there were enough dedicated resources for that,” McDonald said.

At ECHO, “we got to thinking; it might be nice to support existing programs with volunteers who can provide outreach to these others” who live or work in the community.

CSU is about helping “people be ready and safe,” especially new Americans and refugees who are trying to integrate, she said. That’s why the unit is recruiting bilingual volunteers.

In general, volunteers are invaluable because they can help by knowing how to take care of themselves, family and friends in preparation for an emergency — so people are less off-guard. For example, tornado drills and mass evacuation drills can walk people through “what to do before we are facing the emergency,” McDonald said.

Also, in times of crisis, neighbors lean on one another. CSU helps “to provide some education so they can take care of themselves in a crisis and work in a system,” she said.

ECHO can tailor the training to the specific needs of a community, as well. For example, in Brooklyn Center, drownings in recent years, especially in some communities with limited English proficiency, led to a class about water safety, McDonald said.

Training sessions also dealt with how communities respond to crises and disasters, fire safety and disaster recovery, severe weather and psychological first aid, among other things.

CSU is not just about translating information and sending it out. “We try to work with communities to integrate people,” McDonald said. “That conversation gets people involved and engaged and lets them be a part of the solution,” she said.

That means talking about “the best ways to communicate so a message gets through and it includes context. It’s about building understanding.”

CSU volunteers work side by side with public officials toward a common goal, which may be an unusual dynamic for some newcomers, she said. Also, it gives them a forum to talk about what they’ve been through.

A first-time volunteer

Judith Ferreyra Garcia, a native of Mexico, was moved to volunteer with Brooklyn Center’s CSU after learning about it at an outreach event for her job as a community health worker at Northpoint Health and Wellness Center in north Minneapolis. CSU is her first volunteer service. “One thing that caught my attention is that I’m really scared of tornadoes. They said they would have training for that,” she said.

Garcia knew firsthand that many local Latinos didn’t take advantage of resources in the wake of the tornado. Often, they didn’t even leave their homes. “They didn’t have any food or money and they didn’t know they could get help,” she said. “Every time the police or firefighters would come knocking, they would think they were there to do something bad to them.”

She used to be fearful to call the police. “Now I know they’re not mad if I call, and they’re thankful for the call and it can prevent bad things from happening,” Garcia said.

All in all, through the training, “I did learn a lot and I have been able to share it with my family and friends,” she said.


Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She can be reached at