Efforts to help vulnerable communities are most effective when they actively engage community members, agencies and other stakeholders in solving complex social problems.
In many parts of Brazil, communities must find their own ways to address the needs of children and families with limited resources. Those needs have intensified since early 2020, when COVID-19 quickly spread throughout the country.
Cody Hollist, associate professor of child, youth and family studies, is working to improve educational outcomes for children and youth living in Cachoeirinha, a high-risk, low-resource suburb of Porto Alegre, Brazil. He is collaborating with Bruna Seibel, postdoctoral researcher of Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio Grande do Sul and the project’s principal investigator.
Using a community-based participatory research approach, Hollist and Paul Springer, associate dean for student success and professor of child, youth and family studies, are leveraging their experience in working with community agencies — churches, medical clinics, police and schools — to improve outcomes for youth and families in vulnerable communities.
The researchers are working to identify the relationship needs among families and community agencies, along with their collective abilities and resources to address those needs. They’re particularly focused on the mental health and self-efficacy of adolescents, including the factors within families that affect the adolescents’ growth and development.
The team is also aiming to better understand the relationship between community risk factors and family social support to inform interventions. The community-based participatory research approach enables the community to drive sustainable interventions that use resources effectively.
Before the pandemic, Hollist said, Cachoeirinha adolescents were more positive about the future.
“They reported having good friends and family they could rely on,” he said. “They had a good sense of community, which was a powerful protective factor for them. They generally had hope for the future.”
But after more than a year of the pandemic, data indicate their optimism has faded.
“Family solidarity, social support and relationships, self-efficacy and hope for the future are characteristics that have been hugely impacted by the pandemic,” said Hollist, a research affiliate with the Nebraska Center for Research on Children, Youth, Families and Schools. “Some have improved, but many have suffered. If a 15-year-old has no hope for future, their investment in education, avoiding drugs and staying out of trouble declines.”
Brazil was hit hard by the pandemic, particularly in low-income areas such as Cachoeirinha. A recent study found that about 80% of COVID-19 deaths in São Paulo were of low-income residents.
The lack of resources and health care became even more critical during the pandemic, exacerbated by low vaccination rates and widespread, aggressive viral variants. Suicidality has risen dramatically, as have rates of cutting, burning and other self-harm — especially in poor communities.
“If a medical clinic has someone with COVID-19 and something non-life threatening, such as anxiety, depression or cutting, it’s clear where the resources have to go,” Hollist said. “Anything non-life threatening had to be set aside. Unfortunately, mental health was often one of those things put on the back burner.”
Seibel said she is concerned about even greater potential problems emerging in the poor communities.
“In this neighborhood, we have a high rate of drug trafficking, with adolescents becoming involved as early as age 11 or 12,” she said. “I’m concerned there will be an increase in drug trafficking, as well as school dropout rates. Schools here have been closed for more than a year, and it will be difficult for students to return to school.”
Researchers also have faced obstacles. Since early 2020, the Nebraska-Brazil team has conducted research by phone and through local health clinics rather than collaborating in-person. It was the study’s community-based participatory research model that sustained the project, Hollist said.
“If we had not approached this study from the beginning in a CBPR mechanism, the pandemic would have ended it,” he said. “The ability to have an on-the-ground presence embedded in the community is what saved the project.”
Hollist has longtime ties to Brazil. When he was 19, he spent two years in the country working as a missionary. In 2003, he established a research partnership in southern Brazil focused on mental health. He was also integral to the 2016 formation of the Nebraska-Brazil Early Childhood Partnership, which has led to three pilot impact projects conducted jointly in the United States and Brazil.
Hollist said the resilience he sees in vulnerable communities such as Cachoeirinha is inspiring.
“I’ve seen things in those communities that would beat down and destroy many of us, but they smile, they hug and they grow,” he said. “I have learned a level of resilience that helps inform how I teach and how I work with clients when I provide therapy.”