Sun Prairie Neighborhood Navigators offer resources, support during pandemic

Before the pandemic, the group focused on connecting citizens with resources and agencies. During the pandemic, their role shifted to more hands on help.
Updated: Aug. 6, 2021 at 4:30 PM CDT
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SUN PRAIRIE, Wis. (WMTV) - George Chavez is a friendly face in the Sun Prairie community, where he works with the Neighborhood Navigators program. Pulling up in a silver van full of snacks, Chavez greets passersby in the Element apartment complex in Sun Prairie, waving at residents who stop by to say hello, and practicing a new trick with one of the complex’s neighborhood dogs.

The purpose of the Neighborhood Navigators program is twofold, according to the City of Sun Prairie Website. It connects community resource agencies with citizens, and engages citizens in conversations about those resources.

Those conversations are key to making an impact and best serving the community, according to Chavez, a program specialist with the Neighborhood Navigators.

“What we do is we were designed to engage the community and meet the need of the community, whatever that is,” he said. “If it’s providing resources or being the conduit to resources.”

The coronavirus pandemic changed that role slightly, from being more of a connector and getting residents information, to being more hands on to provide “emergency stability,” said Chavez.

“A lot of times we’d come out with our cell phones, we would go online and we would help them fill out forms and things like that to assist them in getting things they needed,” he said. “Plus for people who didn’t have transportation, we would deliver food with the food pantry. We were coming out here and engaging people daily, which was really helpful in learning basically to understand what does the community need?”

To serve the community, the program works with those who live in it.

“The beauty of our program is we actually hire people who reside in the areas we serve, so they’re residents,” Chavez said. “They already have relationships or have built relationships so people know who they are, and they can help others build those resources.”

One of those people is Barry Mahlum, the Neighborhood Navigator for the Element apartments in Sun Prairie. Mahlum has lived in the complex for three years, and began having conversations with the Neighborhood Navigators when they would stop in the neighborhood. Eventually, he was asked to come on board.

“In the last three years, I’ve worked hard to make it a safe spot for everybody,” he said, referring to himself as the neighborhood dad. “Now the kids come out and we all have fun, we make it a big block party most of the time.”

Whether it’s helping people navigate different care options, to connecting them with mental health resources, Chavez values the opportunity to help.

“Every day I get a chance to come out, it’s an opportunity to really hear people’s stories and be able to share with people what’s going on,” he said. “People will open up if you take that time.”

For more information on the program, click here.

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