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Quarantales#2: Interview with Adriana Gomez Schellhaas, Casa Chirilagua Executive Director

Adriana Gomez Schellhaas is the executive director of Casa Chirilagua, a nonprofit organization that serves the predominantly Central American Latino community in the Chirilagua/Arlandria.

Adriana and her boyfriend-now-husband in a heated “who’s face is funnier?” contest. (Courtesy photo)

What are you binge-watching right now?

We watched the whole Chosen series in a couple of days. It’s a series about the life of Jesus. I was not looking forward to it because most movies I’ve seen about Jesus are pretty cheesy. We gave it a shot and it did not disappoint. It’s a crowd-funded project which made the whole experience interesting. The problem is that now we have to wait for season two to be made!

When was the last time you laughed?

My husband and I make each other laugh a lot. That’s what makes us work. The other day we looked at his old phone from when we were dating in 2012. We would take FaceTime shots of ourselves and send it to each other to see who could make the funniest face. That was so much fun. And our twins do funny things too. There’s lots of poop and farts and that makes us laugh.

You are working from home with twin toddlers. Where do you go to hide from them?

In our bedroom or our minivan. I go there for phone calls. We live in a 900 square foot apartment. It’s tricky – Thursday and Friday are [my husband] David’s heaviest days. We have to discuss who feeds the kids lunch, etc. We figure out where we can go.

What has been your biggest challenge since COVID-19 hit Arlandria?

Not being able to see my staff and the community, but we take turns being in our community center for COVID-19 testing. We also have daily and weekly virtual prayer time to say things like “I miss you” and “It’s so lonely.” We are such a relational organization and it’s so important to physically see one another. I took it for granted. It’s led us to be more intentional about staying in touch.

What has been COVID-19’s impact on the Chirilagua community?

Nearly 50 percent of the COVID-19 tests have come back positive. A lot of our families are uninsured and they don’t have a family doctor. It’s gotten worse under COVID-19 and I’m thankful for Neighborhood Health for providing the tests. But I’m also afraid our families will suffer PTSD.

How does COVID-19’s impact on the Chirilagua community affect the rest of Alexandria?

A lot of our families are skilled laborers – cleaning, hotels, restaurants, roofing, landscaping. It’s hard work and now those jobs are gone. It’s also affected the families who depended on our community for childcare. When this is over I hope our families can go back to that kind of labor work. The adults in our community are incredibly skilled. Their resistance is incredible.

A Casa Chirilagua family picks up their weekly food donation. (Courtesy photo)

ABJ-7/WJLA did a feature recently about Chirilagua families being exploited.

Workers in our community are exploited and mistreated by some bosses but they put up with it for their family. I’ve heard so many stories of, “I did this job three weeks ago and I haven’t been paid.” But they keep working. It’s a Catch-22 and really sad. They come here to escape horrific, life or death situations. No one wants to leave their home country but that’s the trauma our neighbors are escaping to come here. It’s heart-wrenching. Moms have had to leave kids behind.

Tell me something that will make us smile.

You should meet April! She’s in second grade and she is so vibrant and brings so much joy and she always has big smiles and laughs. She is so excited about her tutoring sessions and to see her friends [virtual] in Kids’ Club. She’s really excited when she gets her math right! She’s the queen of self-celebrating!

One mom said she’s grateful to be home with her kids and watch their [online] homework even though she doesn’t speak English. Even though she lost her job she said this is her silver lining. A lot of our parents have two jobs so they don’t get a lot of family time.

You mentioned during the ACT for Alexandria ACT Now Tuesday Talks that you are a big believer in self care and everyone should practice that. What do you do?

I try to keep my workday at eight hours and that’s hard with twins. Sometimes I go til 11:30 p.m. and my brain is fried. But burning out doesn’t help anyone and I don’t want that for my team either so I try not to model that.

We rest on weekends and disconnect and forget about laundry and the dirty house. We play with the kids, make breakfasts with bacon, read the newspaper and take lots of walks. And there’s limited screen time.

How can people help Casa Chirilagua’s work?

A list of our COVID-19 related needs is here. Casa Chirilagua accepts donations, and we accept nonperishable food and cleaning products on Thursdays between 1 and 4 p.m. If people need manual labor and would like to hire someone from our community, they can contact us at [email protected].

OTHER: Alexandria First City to Have 911 Operators Work at Home


Jane Collins

Jane Hess Collins is a communications consultant and coach, and holds a masters’ degree in Public Relations & Corporate Communications from Georgetown University. She is the founder and executive director of Heard, an Alexandria-based nonprofit that teaches life skills disguised as art to underserved populations. She retired from the United States Air Force in 2009.

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