At Soccer Games, Markets and Churches, Students Offer New Ways to Get Vaccinated

Grace Wesoly, Queens University News Service

A soccer game is not one of the first places you would look to get vaccinated for COVID-19. But thanks to the Faith in the Vaccine initiative and its student ambassadors, that’s where you’ll find it. 

On a hot July evening at the Mecklenburg County Sportsplex in Matthews, two soccer clubs from Honduras — Club Deportivo Olimpia and Fútbol Club Motagua – played to a 0-0 tie. More than 1,000 Spanish-speaking fans attended, decked out in team colors. Near the stadium entrance, more than a dozen COVID-19 volunteers staffed two green vaccine tents. 

The game-based vaccine project was one of a series of events staffed by university students and recent graduates in two organizations, Bridge Builders Charlotte and the Interfaith Youth Core. The foundational ideas of their initiative are pro-activity and community credibility. Don’t wait for people to come and get the vaccine. Take it to where they shop, live, and gather as a community, and leverage the credibility of leaders and influencers within that community.  

I’ve noticed that the best way to attack these issues is to speak to the leaders within the community,” said Fatou Sall, who just graduated from Lenoir-Rhyne University. More than 40 students from Central Piedmont Community College, Davidson College, Johnson C. Smith University, Queens University, and Wingate University were trained for the initiative. 

“Everyone wants the world to get back to normal, but we can’t until we take the first step in getting this vaccine and respecting the rules and laws that are going to come with that,” Sall said. By taking the vaccine, you’re protecting your community.” 

The Friday night soccer event showed some of the tough slogging faced by the program. Trained professionals delivered free, one-dose Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines. Vaccine recipients received $25 VISA debit cards provided by the North Carolina Community Health Center, with funding from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. Vaccinated people were entered in a raffle for a chance to win two season passes to the 2022 season of the new Charlotte FC soccer team. 

At a soccer game attended by about 2,000 fans, with public address announcements by Spanish-speaking broadcasters every few minutes, 14 people were vaccinated. 

“Being a part of the Hispanic community, there’s a lot of lack of knowledge on what COVID is and the vaccine,” said Marlene Pulido, a recent Queens nursing graduate. “There’s a lot of doubts about getting it, so I think it’s really important to reach out and provide accurate information for everybody so that they can be encouraged to be a part of this and get vaccinated.” 

Student ambassadors reach out to religious groups and non-profit organizations within Charlotte communities to identify opportunities where they could help. Their work is often focused on low-income areas and within ethnic communities.  

The organizers are learning the complications of vaccinations at this stage of the pandemic. 

“One of my biggest takeaways has probably been how many people aren’t vaccinated,” said Irene Kuriakose, who just graduated from Queens. “I assumed that in Charlotte with a lot of young people here, there would be a lot of enthusiasm for the vaccine. But there’s actually a lot of communities where people aren’t being vaccinated. They’re wary of the vaccine or there’s also barriers in place like transportation, because Pfizer and Moderna both require two doses. People might not have time to take off from work and go get vaccinated, so there’s different barriers that have to be considered. And there’s different worries that I hadn’t considered before.  

“A lot of people are worried that the government kind of just came up with a vaccine in a couple weeks and that it’s not to be trusted,” Kuriakose said. “That there will be side effects that people experience. So I think a lot of people are waiting for months and years and hoping that maybe with herd immunity that they won’t even have to get the vaccine. 

“As a student ambassador we’re all doing independent projects in our communities and going into groups that are important to us,” she said. “So for me, I first went out into churches and South Asian communities, as I’m South Asian, and now I’m specifically partnering with non-profits in my area. I’m from Pineville and I’m partnering with a non-profit called Pineville Neighbors Place. They are specifically made for helping the Pineville community and we’re trying to target the homeless population.” 

Pineville Neighbors Place is providing a vaccination event between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 14, at Pineville Pharmacy, 311 S. Polk St. People who are vaccinated will receive a $50 VISA debit card and be entered in a raffle for one of five prizes to receive $500 for payment of rent. Information is available at 704-972-8722 or info@pinevilleneighbors.org. 

Grace Wesoly is a student in the James L. Knight School of Communication at Queens University of Charlotte, which provides the news service in support of local community news

Main photo: Fans of Club Deportivo Olimpia and Fútbol Club Motagua, two Honduran soccer teams playing on July 30 at the Mecklenburg County Sportsplex in Matthews, were supported by a faith-based student initiative to increase COVID-19 vaccinations. Photo by Nación Olimpista and Queens University News Service. 

This story was produced by the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative, a partnership of six media companies working together in an effort started by the Solutions Journalism Network and funded by The Knight Foundation.

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