Bridging Gaps, Building Bonds

As it widened health disparities between whites and people of color, the COVID-19 pandemic revealed how critically important it is for health care providers to expand their reach and build trust in communities of color. 

One organization doing so effectively is Durham-based El Futuro, a nonprofit mental health services provider focused on underserved Latino communities. Although the common stigma of therapy as a sign of weakness” runs strong in some Latino communities, El Futuro draws 1,800 clients per year for individual, group and family treatments. 

A $675,000 grant from The Duke Endowment in May 2020 helped the organization offer culturally appropriate training to more than 1,000 mental health professionals, school counselors, community outreach workers and others through its La Mesita Latinx Mental Health Professionals Network. 

During COVID, the Endowment also awarded a $413,400 grant to help El Futuro meet increased demand when the number of families referred for services more than tripled and El Futuro found itself with a waiting list of more than 300 people. And along with more referrals, the organization saw an increased acuity of mental health needs. 

The new funding expanded the organization’s clinical capacity by training more licensed therapists. It also helped increase the technical assistance staff to improve access to treatment across North Carolina and bolster support to smaller providers in rural areas. 

We say pull up a chair to La Mesita and learn with us,” said Smith, a psychiatrist. Everybody has a seat at the table.

A Seat at the Table 

Key to El Futuro’s appeal is a humble, inviting approach centered around the theme of La Mesita”— Spanish for the little table.” Dr. Luke Smith, El Futuro’s executive director, says he and his staff see themselves not as teaching or leading clients, but rather learning with them, and with other service providers. 

We say pull up a chair to La Mesita and learn with us,” said Smith, a psychiatrist. Everybody has a seat at the table.” 

El Futuro focuses on building confianza,” or trust, with clients. A therapeutic garden next to its building invites the community in, as does a colorful mural, Latino heritage celebrations, and related workshops. 

Its nearly 50 employees hail from across Central and South America, but their bilingual fluency isn’t enough. Smith says they also must show calor humano,” or human warmth. For instance, no walking through the waiting room without greeting clients. 

Everything is Good’ 

El Futuro’s trust-building opens pathways to healing for clients who often have left behind rich social networks in their native countries. At times, they may struggle with loneliness, anxiety, depression and substance abuse. 

I felt like my life was not worth living,” said one client. But not now, thank God. Everything is good, and thanks to the senoritas (therapists) who helped us, now I am very optimistic.”