Arrina helps us to understand the struggles of immigrant children and their families.
Arrina buried among her new friends.
Emerging from a whirlwind summer experience, I could not be more pleased with my time as a Shepherd Intern at Centro Latino in Danville, KY. I learned that one could make a significant difference, in a short period of time with a little effort. I witnessed, firsthand, the significant progress made by the children who attended our camps. For instance, three of the children from our first camp had come from Mexico a mere three months earlier. They could not speak a lick of English and their teachers, who did not speak Spanish, did not set time aside to teach English to these newcomers. After three months in the States, they were only able to say words like, “door”, “water”, and “chair.” On the first day of camp, the three boys were glued to the perimeter of the room, watching us with a distrustful gaze. Breaking the ice, a fellow intern approached these boys and said, “¿Hablan Español?” The kids were so relieved that they could finally communicate with someone that they laughed and exclaimed, “¡Gracias!” After alternating between English and Spanish for three additional 7-hour days, each of the three eager boys was better able to communicate in short English sentences. At the end of the week, the eldest of the boys ran back into the classroom, after begrudgingly leaving, to give each of us a great big hug. He spoke to us using his newly learned English, “Thank you so much.” His gratitude and excitement erased the exhaustion I had accumulated throughout the difficult week. This experience gave me optimism that individualized education of children can overcome substantial obstacles.
Centro Latino is a nonprofit organization that aims to promote the Hispanic population’s self-sufficiency and independence through “social justice, education and health care” initiatives. As Shepherd Interns, our tasks were interesting and the work we conducted was meaningful. We ran four separate weeklong, enrichment-based summer camps; canvased houses inhabited by members of the Hispanic community to assess the families’ needs or troubles; assisted with English classes for adults; transported students to free art classes; and directed an early childhood intervention class. We also organized a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals/Affordable Care Act (DACA/ACA) information session with Spanish speaking attorneys. DACA is a policy set in place by the Obama administration that allows established immigrant youth, who meet set criteria, to defer their deportment. A couple of kids who attended our camps benefited from this policy and were able to obtain work permits for two years until renewal of their DACA status. We also identified a number of possibly eligible candidates for the policy during the DACA/ACA information session. In short, we made ourselves available to the community in virtually any capacity that was needed. We established lasting relationships with families throughout Central Kentucky; some of the families insisted on showing their gratitude by making us homemade art or inviting us to lunch/dinner. Their expressions of gratitude warmed our hearts and motivated us to do more. This internship provided valuable insight into these pressing matters of immigration and poverty. The internship also provided me a new perspective on my options for a future vocation.
In a broad sense, I learned a number of substantive lessons. I observed the distinctive isolation that the immigrant population experiences. Language and cultural barriers are exacerbated in a largely conservative, southern town. These barriers frustrate attempts to build connections between the Hispanic community and larger community. One of Centro Latino’s principal, but implicit, tasks is to serve as a diplomat for the Latino community. Members of the board must choose their words carefully when they explain the mission of Centro Latino to this conservative community. For example, I was instructed to refrain from using any sympathetic language during my segment of a presentation for a grant opportunity; I could not make it seem as though Centro Latino wanted to provide the “illegal” population with any special benefits. For many, the focus was on narrow self-interest rather than on increasing opportunities for children who lacked them. I also had to clarify that we connect the population to necessary legal resources and that we do not “try to help them too much.” To see this organization compromise its idealistic goals in order to achieve results was a lesson in pragmatism. I learned that even nonprofits with altruistic purposes must make sacrifices for the sake of efficiency, diplomacy, and politics.
Furthermore, I observed that school systems in Central Kentucky are provided inadequate resources to help the Spanish-speaking populace. Districts are lucky to have one Spanish-speaking administrator or teacher, let alone enough to integrate Spanish speakers into the American school system. ESL students are passed along from grade to grade with insufficient skills or tools to succeed. Additionally, schools may have policies in place that require ESL students to immerse into everyday classes with little-to-no assistance. In one of the districts during our weeklong camp, teachers tested ESL students with a grade-level detecting computer education program; they had instructions from the administration to refrain from offering language assistance to the Spanish-speaking children. The teachers were frustrated by inefficient and ineffective ESL program procedures. As noted, students made their best progress when they could communicate with a bilingual resource, a person able to explain a new language and new culture in a familiar way.
Both the documented and undocumented Hispanic community lacks access to healthcare. Centro Latino partners with health agencies in the Danville community to help Hispanic families apply for healthcare through HealthCare.gov. Centro Latino helps those who are ineligible take their letters of denial to a reduced-fee clinic. Although 90% of the children and 50-60% of the adults Centro Latino serves are United States citizens, the community stigmatized them and assumed that all Hispanic residents were illegal and should not receive assistance. The Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services rescinded welfare benefits for children who were U.S. citizens if their guardians could not provide their own Social Security numbers. Perhaps benefits such as CHIP and SNAP should be withheld from non-U.S. citizens; however, the wellbeing of U.S. citizens and legal residents is also at stake. The healthcare application process is tedious and complex, even for a native English speaker. Without Centro Latino’s translation assistance, the Hispanic population uses the emergency room as its only resource for healthcare, a costly last resort. Decision-makers often detach policies from the lives they affect.
There are other problems. Government assistance is scarce for non-profits providing services. Centro Latino works with a limited budget, which restricts its impact. The grant-writing process takes time and energy, which could otherwise be devoted to helping the target population. I also observed through Centro Latino’s partner, Adult Education, that federal funding complicates and dilutes the work that needs to be done. Government aide comes with guidelines and restrictions that impede a non-profit agency’s ability to address the community’s unique needs. Adult Education’s employees criticized the complexity of Kentucky’s new, lengthy GED guidelines. They worry they won’t be able to graduate as many persons, and without GEDs, these adults can’t even flip burgers. I believe that funding should allow eager local organizations the flexibility to assist in the most fitting manner. Moreover, the politicized government inadequately educates the population to deal with the immigrants already in communities. Political forces capitalize on the prejudice and ignorance of the general population in order to win votes. As long as political posturing continues, the government will not speak with one voice on this issue and civil society suffers. The citizens of Danville have been warned only of the “problem of illegal immigration.” Instead of focusing only on how to drive out the 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States, politicians should educate the general public on how we should address immigrants in our daily lives. Many people in Danville come to treat the Hispanic population as a political scapegoat. I observed citizens confusing their patriotic duty and taking a vigilante role: reporting cars driven by Hispanic individuals, carding middle-aged Hispanic adults at restaurants, falsely accusing them of crimes, and so on.
On the last day of the internship, the students from the adult education program insisted on taking us interns out to dinner to show their gratitude. We met them at the restaurant and were greeted with thoughtful gifts. I remarked on the gesture’s significance, contemplating the long hours they must have worked in order to thank us. When the waitress approached our table to take our drink orders, the middle-aged couple ordered alcoholic beverages. As soon as one of the students spoke in Spanish, the waitress changed her demeanor and demanded to see their identification. Embarrassed and uncomfortable, the couple quickly changed their order and glanced at me furtively. I couldn’t believe that this heartfelt occasion was sullied by prejudice. The Hispanic population will be able to better contribute to our society without all the obstacles this stigma stipulates. Moreover, Centro Latino has a difficult time partnering with other agencies in the community. Some school systems, churches, and other businesses are unwilling or anxious about offering help. If we all work to remove the politicized perception of the Hispanic population, we will more efficiently and effectively address problems and nonprofits reach their potential.
This internship informed my goals and sense of vocation. I most appreciated Centro’s effort to diminish all facets of poverty in the Hispanic population, not just income poverty. By focusing on education, health, and justice, Centro Latino increases the freedom of the Latino community in Danville. It works to eliminate social deprivation and, eventually economic poverty, by enhancing human capability. Without all of the services that Centro Latino provides, the Hispanic population in Danville and the surrounding counties would be almost without resources to reduce poverty. I want to be involved in organizations that offer a comprehensive range of services to assist individuals suffering from poverty. I could not have asked for a more educational or fulfilling summer experience.