Whimsical Characters Teach Kids and Help Parents Too

Who better to help navigate the COVID-19 pandemic health guidance than a masked turtle, a socially distanced cat and a couple of smiling baby carrots?

These “Courageous Covid Vaccine Champions” are cartoon characters created by Asian Services in Action (ASIA), a health and social services organization providing resources to address the needs of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities in Northeast Ohio.

The “Champions” are part of ASIA’s COVID-19 and influenza vaccine outreach, carried out with support from the CDC Foundation. While these characters are whimsical in design, they were created to take on the serious challenge of communicating essential health and safety information about COVID-19 vaccines to newly arrived immigrants and refugees—many of whom cannot read and speak only limited English. Exposure to violence and displacement has also prevented many in these communities from receiving a formal education. For them, the evolving messaging about the vaccines can be confusing.

“They can speak the language of their country of origin, but because of historical ethnic cleansing and things like that, many of the communities that we serve, they're illiterate in any language,” said Elaine Tso, ASIA CEO. “That’s why it's really important to message in a visual sense with a lot of infographic information.”

Tso hired a graphic artist from the local AAPI community to design the characters. The champions themselves are depicted as human-like animals and vegetables rather than people of any one ethnicity. “The goal is to be inclusive, diverse—so that everybody feels seen and heard,” Tso said.

Noting that the children in refugee and immigrant families often serve as informal interpreters for their parents, the ASIA team decided to introduce the community to their Courageous Covid Vaccine Champions through a coloring contest for local kids.

“If we can engage the children, the children can engage their parents and then the parents can get the information,” Tso said. “We made the coloring pages available in places where community members would gather—the public library, grocery stores, community events.”

Building on the contest outreach, ASIA also created a board game called “Vaccine Victory” in which players follow the Courageous Covid Vaccine Champions on their vaccine journey and collect trading cards with the characters on them. At the board game’s finish line, players see the Courageous Covid Vaccine Champions celebrate and proudly display their band aids to show that they have been vaccinated.

As families play the game, ASIA’s bilingual outreach workers interact with them—exploring the issues and concerns they may have about vaccination.

Tso believes the playful, imaginative characters alleviate some of the anxiety about the COVID-19 vaccines and enable newly arrived families to get the information they need to make an informed decision about vaccination.

“People who came to the United States under duress as refugees or fleeing some sort of political infighting in their country of origin—they have very little trust of government,” Tso said. “We want to create the environment where individuals feel like they're choosing to be vaccinated as opposed to being forced to be vaccinated…making it family-friendly, making it feel safe.”

Funding for this effort is made possible through a subaward from the CDC Foundation and is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) financial assistance award totaling $25,660,048 with 100 percent funding from CDC/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement by, CDC/HHS or the U.S. Government. 

Ruth O'Neill headshot
Ruth O’Neill is a senior communications officer for the CDC Foundation’s department of infectious disease programs.