Latino community center opens in Danville

December 10, 2004|LIZ MAPLES

It is a cultural thing. The party started at 6 p.m., and by 6:50 p.m. Centre college students crowded into the small office space on Main Street that will be Danville's first Latino community center.

The students waited for Latino families. Culturally they never show up just as a party starts.

"I thought if they showed up by 7 p.m. we'd be lucky," said Betsy Dahms, a Centre alumna who will work with the students at the center when it opens in February.

Dahms arrived early with a pot of tamales made by Margarita Valencia, a Danville resident. The steamed delicacies are a labor-intensive cooking feat, and were delicious but mild, perhaps for the sake of the students' tongues.

The tamales were a centerpiece for a potluck dinner where the Latino community and Centre students celebrated the opening of the community center, Centro Latino.


It will be a resource center for the Latino community. A place where people can go with their questions about government services, and know that they can find someone who can answer them in Spanish.

Navigating government services is a daunting task in itself. A pregnant woman, for example, gets her prenatal care from the Boyle County Health Department, but has to reach out to the Kentucky Cabinet for Health Services for help to pay for the baby's delivery.

Trying to figure out what agency does what when a person does not speak English is a near impossibility.

Jose Espinoza moved to the U.S. from Veracruz, Mexico, and has lived in Danville for three years. When he arrived he spoke little English, but he takes classes at Danville Adult Education and Literacy Center, and that has helped him most at his job.

As other Latino families begin to show up at the party, Espinoza switches to Spanish to speak to them.

Many of the students are already acquainted with some of the Latino community here. As part of their Spanish classes, they work with people in the community to teach them and their children English.

Now the Centre students will also volunteer at Centro Latino.

$50,000 grant from 3M Foundation

It is being funded by a $50,000 grant from the 3M Foundation, the company most famous for its sticky yellow Post-It notes. Mary Daniels, an associate professor of Spanish at Centre, wrote the grant, and she and Dahms will run it with the help of the students.

Daniels hopes that students at the center will be able to acclimate them to the American system, to help them find health care, work with the school system, enroll in English classes, find a church and deal with the court system.

Daniels is on sabbatical, but will return in time for Centro's opening in February. Soda in hand, she was busy catching up with her students Thursday, but took a break to talk about the center.

"I hope that it becomes a community center, in the true sense of the word," she said.

In three years, when the grant ends, she hopes that the Latino community will want to take ownership of the center.

She said the center was for the Latino community, but the students receive so much in exchange for helping people.

"For the students learning Spanish, conversing with a native-speaker, means a whole lot more than being in a classroom. It's a lot more than memorizing verb conjugations."

She said she sees how the students' requirement to work in the community helps them.

"Reading their journal entries, you know it has been life-changing."

Freshman Pat McMahon, who is from Louisville, said teaching English has helped his Spanish. Often, he found that his students knew more English then he knew Spanish.

Because his Spanish is not as good as his students', whose first language is Spanish, McMahon said it helped him see how Latinos might feel in situations when they don't speak as much English as those around them.

"It's frustrating not to be able to express yourself," he said.

Fast-growing Latino population

According to the 2000 Census in Boyle County and the surrounding five counties the Latino population grew by 282 percent. Kentucky ranks fourth among states with the fastest-growing Latino population. Dahms says that this number is probably a low estimate because people who don't speak English are reluctant or unable to fill out government forms.

The Centro Latino's grant application indicates it will serve 600 people in the Boyle County area, and 1,200 from surrounding counties.

The center will be open 1 to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and 7 to 9:30 p.m. on Mondays and Tuesdays during the academic year, from September to May. It will be open fewer hours during the summer, and closed during the holidays.

The Centro was furnished with donations from students. It has bookshelves, a computer and a few couches and chairs. The organizers still have a wish list:

* A small refrigerator.

* DVD and VCR player.

* School supplies.

* Computers and accessories.

For more information, call the center at (859) 583-0855.

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