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For more than 10 years, Chapel Hill consultant Will Mendoza helped businesses and organizations come up with strategies to better achieve their visions. Now, he’s bringing that same drive and experience to the Hispanic Liaison’s COVID-19 relief efforts as the nonprofit’s new COVID-19 Project Manager.
“As soon as I found out that they were looking for somebody, I decided to apply,” said Mendoza, 44. “… El Vinculo has a footprint in many counties. It’s got Randolph, it’s got Alamance, it’s got Chatham, so being able to help them shape that energy and that effort to reach the most number of people was something that I really wanted to do.”
Mendoza joined the Liaison’s staff a month ago, thanks to a sub-grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and will be coordinating the Liaison’s COVID-19 relief efforts both internally and externally.
“We absolutely needed the extra capacity to manage all the COVID-19 projects we’re doing, and especially as it related to vaccines,” the Liaison’s executive director, Ilana Dubester, told the News + Record. “The workload got super intense, and we were spreading it to everybody in the office, even to folks whose job was not that.”
As COVID-19 Project Manager, Mendoza will coordinate the Liaison’s COVID-19 vaccinations, registration and education efforts with their community partners, including the Chatham Public Health Department and Piedmont Health Services, among others, Dubester said. He’s also building the Liaison’s COVID-19 information pages on the organization’s website.
“So things like that — just really kind of reining in this project, organizing it and getting things done,” she added. “He’s awesome. He works independently really, really well. It’s just perfect for me and perfect for this project. And he really knows what he’s doing. He brings a lot of intelligence and heart to the project and his desire to help the community.”
Mendoza’s decision to join the Hispanic Liaison traces back to volunteer work and a desire to help local communities prosper — both in his home country and in North Carolina.
Born and raised in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, Mendoza originally studied computer science and had dived into IT consulting for many years. Along the way, though, he became involved with a few local nonprofits and volunteered his time using the skills he learned, including technology training.
“But there was definitely a need for understanding how beyond just computers communities could be helped,” he said. “And back then, even though I was volunteering, my knowledge was very, very limited. I was always interested in somehow contributing to the growth at an economic level of local and small communities.”
In 2007, he decided to pursue that interest: after receiving a fellowship, he moved to North Carolina to pursue postgraduate studies at UNC-Chapel Hill’s city and regional planning department. He graduated two years later with a degree in economic development; soon after, in 2012, he received his MBA from UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School.
At the time, he said his big goal had been to work at a large policy organization that made “high-level” decisions meant for local implementation. He soon discovered, however, that wasn’t the route he wanted to take.
“So I sort of shifted my focus to more of that pure economic development and growth from a local perspective,” he said, “and getting my MBA also helped me understand more the business side and the financial side and why decisions are made the way they are.”
Working from the ground up — that, he said, is how he works best. Creating strategies to help mission-oriented companies and organizations grow, he said, has always been his passion.
“I like to enable transformation — not for the sake of just growing or transforming, but with a purpose,” he said, adding, “When you work at a high policy level, you miss that connection, because you’re trying to see everything and sort of do the best you can for the broader picture whereas working individually with organizations you can help them drive their individual mission.”
After completing his MBA, he worked in product and project management for corporate America up in Boston. In 2017, he returned to Chapel Hill, where he has worked as a strategy consultant primarily for businesses and organizations involved in health care and technology.
And then COVID-19 struck.
And as Mendoza watched the pandemic hurt his community even early on, he decided to do something about it.
“There were just random events that you find on WhatsApp,” he said, adding, “You see the ad on WhatsApp or Facebook and sort of show up and sign up as a volunteer. … So initially, that was my approach, like, ‘Oh, there’s some event. Let me see if I can donate a little bit of my time.’”
In June of 2020, however, he decided to take things a little further and join the state health department’s Carolina Community Tracing Collaborative as a full-time contact tracer and later case investigator. He’d found out about it through his COVID-19 volunteer relief work.
“Things were getting very serious,” he said. “... By the middle of the summer, businesses were fully closing. The community just didn’t know how to react, and that’s when I think the need for this effort of educating and communicating through contact tracing became very apparent. It was one of the strategies that the state decided to fully leverage, and that’s when I thought ‘OK, let me jump in head first.’”
As a contact tracer, he reached out to people who had been exposed to COVID-19, explained to them what they needed to do to protect themselves, plus others, and connected them with health care resources when needed. As a case investigator, Mendoza conveyed similar information and directives to those sick with COVID-19, but he also investigated how people originally contracted the virus as well as to whom they may have spread it.
“Last year, tests weren’t as readily available as they are now,” he said, adding, “It was very, very difficult, so the best way that we could do is if you were exposed is to say, ‘Stay at home. Quarantine. Let’s prevent the possibility of a positive case,’ and we will monitor them, call them on a daily basis and see how they were doing.’”
And that on-the-ground work, he said, helped him understand the unique challenges that the Latinx community in particular faced. Since he was bilingual, he’d often interact with Spanish-speaking members of the community who’d been exposed or contracted the virus.
“The numbers in the Latinx community were really high,” he said, “and by having those conversations and me doing contact tracing ... I was able to understand a little better than nuances and what were the reasons that were affecting our community in very specific ways that perhaps you wouldn’t hear from other groups. So that helped me get a better grasp, and I sort of stayed connected with these relief efforts.”
After about six months, COVID-19 tests had become widely available, and Mendoza went back to consulting with clients in the health care sector who wanted to look into new ways and technologies to prevent COVID’s spread. Soon after, though, he found out that the Hispanic Liaison was looking for someone to direct their COVID-19 relief efforts and decided to apply.
He’d always been aware of the Liaison and their work, he said, since he’d been in graduate school. While pursuing his degree, he worked on a project looking at Siler City.
“I like their mission,” he said. “I agree with everything that they’re about, and this is another opportunity to connect back — maybe not as a direct one-on-one contact tracer — and help shape the direction of how El Vinculo tackles its efforts in COVID-19, and how we can serve the most number of people in our community.”
Since he started in late March, he’s coordinated vaccination events with Liaison’s COVID-19 relief partners, including the second mass vaccination at St. Julia’s on April 24. He’s also working on carrying out a three-pronged COVID-19 relief strategy — educating clients about the virus, connecting those in need with COVID-19 testing and vaccinating the communities they serve.
“As we move forward, we’re also seeing advocacy,” he said. “We’re also seeing the challenges with people who have lost their jobs or are struggling financially because of COVID-19. … It’s not yet a main focus for us, but as those become priorities, then I’m the person who’s the point of contact and working with El Vinculo to come up with our own strategy and how we’re going to channel that to the community.”
Ultimately, he hopes to bring focus and strategy to the Liaison’s COVID-19 efforts, as well as create a simple, easy process for community members to get the information and resources they need as quickly as possible.
“I want the community to be able to see and feel that any doubt, any question, any need, that I may have, El Vinculo will get back to me really fast with an answer,” he said, adding, “So being able to enable us to serve our community better, that I would take as a win.”
Reporter Victoria Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.