Community outreach and engagement during a pandemic

July 30, 2020

What does a group of cancer center community engagement and activation experts do when the State of Minnesota has faced stay-at-home orders, social distancing guidelines, and a general shutdown of many partner organizations? Great question.

The COE team, led by Senior Manager, Kiara Ellis, MSW, has found new and innovative ways to connect with their community partners.


“Gone are the days of popping into community meetings or holding cooking classes for dozens of people at a YMCA,” said Ellis. “We still have team members out volunteering and doing amazing work in the community, but we’ve really increased our online presence and activities. Our amazing COE team is using technology and interactivity to share a message of learning, hope, and compassion to continue the work of decreasing cancer’s burden on Minnesotans.”

For a group used to meeting with partners in-person, whether that be at a community center, Salvation Army, barber shop, or health fair, COVID-19 has thrown a figurative wrench into the system and forced the Masonic Cancer Center’s Community Outreach and Engagement (COE) team to adjust course and figure out how to engage without the hugs, high-fives or face to face interaction.

Team members sought out opportunities to connect with community members about cancer prevention, but at a distance. Leveraging the Masonic Cancer Center’s long-standing relationship with the Twin Cities Salvation Army, Outreach Coordinators Sylvette Lopez-Ruth & Abdi Ahmed partnered with the various sites of the organizations food banks to include educational inserts in English, Spanish & Somali languages about ways to connect cancer-fighting foods and screening encouragement to be included in all 5,000 care packages distributed to the community.

Building on his colleague’s idea, Outreach Coordinator Abdifatah Ahmed also distributed information about preventing cancer through nutrition into the Somali language and worked with Afro Deli, a local small business, to include the insert in the 1,000 food packages distributed to older residents of the Cedar Riverside community during Ramadan.

“COVID-19 has forced us to be creative in our approaches to reaching people,” said Associate Professor, Jen Poynter, MPD, PhD, Associate Director for Community Outreach and Engagement and Associate Professor of Pediatrics at the U of M Medical School. “It is so important for us to continue making connections with the various populations in Minnesota. Cancer is not going to take a break during the pandemic and we are committed to connecting people with the resources and education they need to spot, avoid, and get screened for cancer.”

Almost immediately after Minnesota was hit with the coronavirus, the COE team created MCC Online, a web-based resource hub to learn about cancer, awareness, prevention, and more through a series of videos, activities, resources, and guides. Resources can be found in English, Spanish, and Somali. photo

Along with MCC Online, the group also made the popular Mini Medical School: A 20/20 View of Cancer available to everyone by making it an online educational course covering the causes of cancer all the way through surviving cancer. Mini Medical School, through a partnership with the University of Minnesota Office of Academic Clinical Affairs, was offered in early 2020 as an in-person course. Each short, interactive lecture was recorded and now the entire series is available online in different modules. Since going live as an online experience in June, 2020 - over 300 people ranging from 8th graders to lifelong learners have enrolled in the online course.