Leah Palmer, the Martha’s Vineyard public schools English Language Learning coordinator, has spent the past decade building cross-cultural channels of communication on the Island.

But when the pandemic hit back in March, schools, town halls, libraries, shelters, transportation services and almost every other public institution on the Vineyard had to close its doors within the span of days. Those bridges, built over the course of a decade, quickly began to crumble.

“I was at home, just beside myself, around how I am going to effectively communicate with families right now about the crisis,” Ms. Palmer recalled. “And everyone was in the same boat. Like, what are we going to do?”

Out of that dire concern was born the Community Ambassador Partnership, an interagency group that formed in the wake of the pandemic to coordinate communication with the Island’s substantial, 3,000-person Brazilian Portuguese community. The group, which now includes Brazilian pastors, business owners and the BRAZUKADA Facebook group administrator, as well as staff from Island Health Care, Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, Martha’s Vineyard Community Services and the Island health agents, has met every Tuesday since forming in early April — hoping to rebuild those bridges of communication that the pandemic destroyed.

“It really was spearheaded with Covid and grew organically,” Ms. Palmer said. “With our schools closed, I wanted to ensure everyone was safe and knew where to get resources from and what’s going on. If you remember that time from March to June, it was crazy. We didn’t know.”

The pandemic made it hard to communicate constantly-changing information to the Vineyard’s English speaking population, with school plans evolving hourly and terms like “socially-distant” and “PPE” creating a new vernacular on an Island with a rural hospital and only three ICU beds.

But Ms. Palmer only had a handful of interpreters, most of them school staff. Communicating information to the Island’s substantial non-English speaking population presented a different challenge.

“Our typical paths of communication — email, phone calls, even texts — that was not the best way, within our school system, of communicating within our ELL program,” Ms. Palmer explained. “I look at our ELL school program as a microcosm of our overall community.”

Through that lens, Ms. Palmer and the group developed weekly, one-minute videos updating families on the constantly-evolving school situation, and realized that the best way to coordinate communication was through WhatsApp — a cross-platform messaging service that allowed for oral recordings. As many as 25 people attended the weekly meetings, with a regular group of 10 that included Chilmark health agent Marina Lent.

But Ms. Palmer quickly realized CAP — as it became known — was not just about rebuilding communication channels. It would have to build new ones, too.

The organization immediately applied for and received $10,000 in emergency grant funding from the Permanent Endowment for Martha’s Vineyard to run a free training course for nine new Portuguese-language interpreters. With summer fast arriving and the pandemic tearing through the country, teachers stripped the lessons down to the bare bones, packing 60 hours of interpreter techniques into an intense, four-day, 20-hour crash course. The class, run by a company in Woburn, focused specifically on hard interpreting skills, like memory, accuracy, role-play and the interpreter’s job as a conduit, clarifier, cultural broker and advocate for the community.

Poli Bellan Wilson, who is bilingual and moved to the Island from Brazil three years ago, said that even though she had been interpreting for most of her life, the course provided her with a new linguistic skill set.

“It’s not enough that you are bilingual,” Ms. Bellan Wilson said. “There are techniques that you have to master. You need to understand what you are doing and understand your subject and message — and how you treat that message as something really precious.”

The course also spent hours familiarizing the nine interpreters with an unfamiliar subject: medical, pandemic-related language and vocabulary. Covid-19 made the interpreter’s always delicate balance of precision and circumlocution particularly difficult.

“Your mind uses some words that are more medical related, but when you are interpreting, you have to use the best language you can for people to understand you,” Ms. Bellan Wilson said. “You have to speak to the target audience. But you are not lowering the bar. And you cannot change the message.” Take the word asymptomatic. Before the pandemic, the term was barely used in English or Portuguese. But it has become essential vocabulary in the short span of months, and interpreters like Ms. Bellan Wilson not only had to learn its meaning with regard to the disease, but also how to communicate it in multiple languages to people who may not have known it in either.

“Using it for the first time, I would maybe say ‘no symptoms,’ or ‘someone with no symptoms,’” Ms. Bellan Wilson explained. “I’m not taking a detour or changing the meaning of the message, which is the main part. But then, you start using the word ‘asymptomatic,’ ‘asymptomatic,’ ‘asymptomatic,’ and people understand. Now it’s part of the common knowledge.”

“Language lives,” Ms. Bellan Wilson added.

The nine new interpreters, who finished training in July, nearly doubled the availability of professional translation services on the Island. In the time since their training, as cases have spiked and public health outreach has grown more urgent, those interpreters have helped translate crucial health documents, like local construction guidelines, and interpret meetings CAP organized between Brazilian clergy, health agents, and domestic workers.

The Permanent Endowment grant included funding to pay the interpreters for their work as well, and a second $10,000 arrived earlier in November.

“We couldn’t have done any of this without the endowment,” Ms. Palmer said. “It’s amazing what you can get done, when you need it.”

Ms. Bellan Wilson and Debora Da Costa, both of whom became certified through the course this summer, interpreted at the clergy and domestic workers meetings in November. Ms. Bellan Wilson also does translation recording services for MVY radio, along with her job as a Headstart home visitor for Community Services.

None of it would have been possible with the Community Ambassador Partnership.

“It was just a great idea . . . I love giving back to this community, and building this bridge between Brazilians who do not speak English, and Americans who do not speak Portuguese,” Ms. Bellan Wilson said. “For some, the bridge is already there. But even bringing people closer to halfway, it’s always really rewarding.”