Virtual Connections with Hacienda Families

by Emily Pinkowitz, Education Director

When the COVID-19 pandemic swept through Oregon last March, it left many families struggling to find meaningful activities for their children. This posed a challenge for our partners at Hacienda Community Development Corporation (CDC), who usually provide after-school care for hundreds of children in Cully and North Portland. How could they continue to support families during this critical time? Pilar Palos, Hacienda’s Manager of Youth & Family Services, and Maria Escalera, Espresiones Lead, worked with their team to develop a creative solution. By dropping materials off at the homes of youth, Hacienda’s Espresiones after-school team could offer virtual, small-group sessions each week, complete with fun, hands-on activities. “We felt it was important to not only maintain a strong connection to families, but give kids something to look forward to each week,” Pilar says.

Photo of Hacienda's Main Office, courtesy of

Bird Alliance of Oregon was grateful to be part of this vital support. For close to ten years, we have partnered with Hacienda, Portland’s largest Latinx-led, Latinx-serving affordable housing provider, to offer approximately 75 hours of free after-school and camp programming to more than 60 children each year. In past years, our Educators have visited Hacienda properties after school with touchable skulls, wings and pelts, and toured some of Oregon’s most beautiful natural areas with children each summer. When we realized that these in-person programs might not be possible, we reached out to Pilar to explore how we could support their efforts.

Together, we developed a series of virtual afternoon programs that use nature, science and Bird Alliance of Oregon’s unique collection of specimens to connect children to the nature right outside their homes. Over the last 10 months, School & Outdoor Partnership Specialist Abby VanLeuven has met online with dozens of children from four different Hacienda properties. Children have become expert backyard bird spotters, familiarized themselves with bird songs, and learned about local species and their adaptations. They also got to know our Education birds through up-close videos.

We know children learn best through doing, so we worked with Pilar and Maria to distribute materials to families to augment these programs, including a journal with kid-friendly species accounts and a trove of experiments and craft projects. “The program was amazing because activities were integrated throughout the whole hour,” says Maria, “The kids loved it.” Together, children have made origami swifts, designed window decals to prevent window strikes, and even folded paper airplanes to simulate bird flight. We also installed feeders on the grounds of three properties, providing families with a touchstone to nature they could access without leaving their development.

The response to the program has been one of excitement and wonder, as children have discovered animals in their own neighborhood. “I had kids carrying their phones out to show me the pigeons in their yards and holding up pictures they drew of the topics we were learning about,” says Abby. “Siblings and family members even joined to peer onto the screen while I was showing wings, talons or skulls.”

At the beginning of the program, there was some sadness it could not be in person. But as the children and Abby got to know one another, they were able to foster strong relationships both with our educator and each other. Many children joined us month after month, valuing the connection to community that they experience in the sessions. “Watching the students interact with the Hacienda team, it was clear how much they valued the ability to see each other and lean on another adult for support during these challenging times,” says Abby. In the coming months, we look forward to continuing these after-school sessions, and offering in-person, outdoor summer sessions at green spaces walking distance from Hacienda properties. “Connections to nature are more vital than ever right now,” says Abby. “It means a lot that we are able to work together to create programming that is a bright spot for families.”