Helping the newest immigrants find their niche

by Ellen Freedman

Immigration reform is back in the news, and that’s a good thing for the estimated 11 million undocumented workers who help make our economy go. But where I live, in western Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley, the issue isn’t just documentation; it’s also helping these 18,000 or so new residents become our neighbors and friends. Not just legal citizens, but participants in the community. Like Maria.

Maria came to town from Mexico thinking she was just going to clean houses. And she did, in our nearby resort towns. But thanks to a program called the Valley Settlement Project, she also became a parent mentor and assistant to a teacher in her local elementary school.  Maria then took computer classes and now has a new goal: to get her GED and become a preschool teacher, which is exactly what our community needs.

Here in this part of the rural West so close to the glitz and glamour of Aspen, the public schools are 50 to 75 percent Latino, and the towns of Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt face issues from hunger to homelessness. The needs are tremendous, but where do we begin? How do we support more Marias?

That’s where nonprofit groups like the Colorado-based Manaus Fund, supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, come in. In 2012, it began the Valley Settlement Project that helped Maria, modeling it on the settlement house movement of the 1880s, which worked to integrate immigrants in industrial cities.

But the Manaus Fund and its workers began by doing their homework. Staffers knocked on doors in the poorest parts of the valley and asked a series of questions: What do you care about? What do you need?  Community organizers visited 300 households in 25 neighborhoods; talked about their findings and asked more questions of 14,400 people; and met with leaders from dozens of organizations across the region.

Here’s what they heard: Many people, including both Anglo and Latino, immigrant and resident, had a lot of fear and a low amount of trust. Language difficulties and physical isolation were huge barriers to civic participation. People didn’t know how to get more education, affordable preschools were rare, families didn’t feel connected to schools, health care seemed unavailable, and underemployment was high.

But 85 percent of immigrant families said they were determined to stay in the region, dispelling the common notion that they’re here to make money before going back home. The truth was quite the opposite: This was home.

The Valley Settlement Project set about addressing these concerns in a way that would endure by focusing on two generations -- children and their parents. One of the first programs launched was the Parent Mentor program, which trains parents to serve as classroom aides. Next came Neighborhood Navigators, which connects people to existing community services; Powertime, which provides afterschool programming; and El Busesito, a mobile preschool program.

Early results are heartening, with big gains in Latinos’ school participation. In schools with big class sizes and teachers who don’t speak Spanish, Latino parents help for two hours daily. Children get preschool experience they wouldn’t receive otherwise. High-need elementary-aged children now have afterschool academic and enrichment programming.

The Valley Settlement Project, however, doesn’t seek only to create something new; it also taps into existing programs. One of them, English in Action, brings together mainly Anglo literacy tutors and their Latino students. It features a potluck where participants eat tuna casserole, tamales, fried chicken, pupusas and ceviche. And then they talk.

They talk about how their English (and Spanish) is improving; about how their lives are changing; and about how the program serves as an antidote to isolation. They find that where they live is increasingly knit together by their friendships –– the encounters they have in the supermarkets, the schools and on the playground. It’s social alchemy. These days, people on both sides of the cultural divide now team up to move a refrigerator or drive a friend to the hospital. We call these people neighbors.

“Margarite” is what I’ll call one such neighbor. She has a degree in communications from Mexico, but when she got here, she never left her house except to pick up her kids from school. After participating in the Parent Mentor program, she got on her local school’s accountability committee; now, she’s taking GED courses. Parent Mentors must volunteer two hours each day, but Margarite often gives six. She reports that the 18 children in her class are like her own. She feels like an important role model as she walks the hallways in her VSP shirt. It is bright orange, and you can see it for a mile.

Ellen Freedman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is the executive director of The Manaus Fund.

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