Group in place to meet immigrant needs

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One woman showed up to a meeting at Hayden High School on Thursday night because her son had starting speaking English at home, and she couldn't understand him. She wanted to learn English. Her other son, she said, still spoke Spanish at home and at school. He was struggling. She wanted to get involved in improving the school's English as a Second Language program.

She spoke in Spanish, peppered with a few English words. She has lived in Hayden for years, but the language barrier keeps her on the other side of an invisible wall separating her from the rest of the small-town community.

But on Thursday night, a door opened in that wall. She signed up to volunteer on a steering committee made of parents who want to see ESL programs improve in Routt County. She also signed up for English classes in her home.

For her, it was a big step toward integrating into the Hayden community. For the rest of the people in the room, it was proof that the past two months of their work has been worthwhile.

Since October, members of the social service community, law enforcement, religious leaders and Latinos have been meeting to discuss the demographic changes happening in the Yampa Valley.

After discussing the issues in Spanish and in English, it was time to tackle the mountains of work they knew was ahead of them.

Summer Laws, 28, and Cody Reed, 22, have started a nonprofit organization called Comunidad Integrada (Integrated Community), and they announced their existence for the first time Thursday night. The new organization will provide advocacy, translation and resource referral, all on a sliding scale.

They have no office, no funding, no fax machine. Laws carries a heavy backpack full of books and notes and phone numbers. Today, Comunidad Integrada is a vision. Tomorrow -- literally -- it may be a reality.

On Monday, Laws and Reed are meeting with the staff at the Colorado Nonprofit Development Center in Denver to find out if their application for fiscal sponsorship was accepted. The CNDC helps fledgling organizations such as Comunidad Integrada get off the ground.

If their application is not accepted, Laws and Reed will continue to search for help.

In reality, if not on paper, the organization already exists. It started slowly and snowballed during the past year until Laws and Reed were completely absorbed by its momentum.

Laws has facilitated a weekly English-Spanish conversation group in her spare time, helped coordinate a Spanish page in The Local and organized a volunteer program for in-home ESL classes -- all on her own time. Since August, when she and Reed met, the two women have coordinated efforts using the resources available through Reed's job as the Bilingual Cultural Mediator at Steamboat Mental Health.

Their programs have allowed immigrants to get involved in the community despite language barriers and have allowed community members who want to reach out to the immigrants a chance to do so.

Liliana Rojas, 25, is the editor of the Spanish page published in The Local. She grew up in Bogotá, Colombia, as the daughter of a newspaper publisher and has been in the United States for two years. She works three jobs -- at Bear River Grill, McDonald's and Central Park Liquor --but still wanted to volunteer, possibly for a domestic violence organization, she said. A few phone calls got her connected to Laws and, before she knew it, she was the editor of a newspaper page dedicated to providing a forum for Spanish speakers.

"I wanted to be of some use," Rojas said. "There are a lot of Latin people here, but they are spread out. They don't know each other."

Speak to Rojas for more than a passing greeting, and you'll find out that she loves politics and has a lot of opinions. Editing a page in the newspaper is the perfect place for her in this community -- it just took her awhile to find it.

Rojas plans to stay in the United States "until I can retire, go home and start a farm," she said. But many immigrants among the increasing numbers in Steamboat are here temporarily. Steamboat residents will never know many of their names. Until recently, many of them did their jobs, made their money and returned home unnoticed.

Until Jorge Rodriguez started attending the Thursday night Intercambio Spanish-English conversation group at Epilogue Book Co., he had a hard time meeting people in Steamboat -- mostly because of the language barrier.

In Steamboat, Rodriguez works in the kitchen of a restaurant. He sends his paycheck back to Mexico for his wife and three children.

He understands more English than he speaks. In Mexico, he makes his living as a part-time taxi driver and a part-time counselor of teens with drug and alcohol addictions. He is only in the United States for a short time to make money for his family. He has been here for a year and plans to stay for a little while longer.

With his background as a counselor, Rodriguez has something to offer the community, but like many temporary workers, he isn't sure what he could give in such a short time.

"I haven't gotten involved partly because of the language barrier," he said in Spanish. "But it's also time. I don't want to start a project and leave it. I don't want to forget what I have at home, but I'd like very much to be a part of this community."

-- To reach Autumn Phillips call 871-4210

or e-mail aphillips@steamboatpilot.com

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