The third annual International Evening held last week at Steamboat Springs High School is a reminder that, slowly but surely, the face of our community is changing.
The 2000 Census showed Routt County to be the least diverse of any county in Colorado, with more than 10,000 people. Minorities comprised just 5 percent of the county's population. The census showed that Hispanics made up the largest minority group, comprising just 3.2 percent of the overall population. No other minority group accounted for more than 0.5 percent of the population. By comparison, 17 percent of the state's population is Hispanic.
But although our population remains predominantly Anglo, we know the landscape is shifting. We know it because of the growing Mexican immigrant community, which is evidenced by rising numbers of English Language Learners in our schools and the rising number of Spanish speakers among our work force. We know it because of the growing group of Mauritanian refugees who now call Steamboat home.
We know it because, since its birth, America has been a nation driven by immigrants from all parts of the world. It is inevitable that such diversification would occur in Steamboat.
Many communities experienced this cultural shift long ago. Some welcomed the change. Others struggled. We think that diversity makes for a healthier, richer community and that it is important for Steamboat to not only accommodate such change but also to embrace it.
Efforts have begun. Just three years ago, the school district had little or no English as a Second Language program. Today, the district employs 2.5 ESL aides and is requesting funds to hire a full-time ESL Program teacher and coordinator for the 2005-06 school year. Enrollment in Colorado Mountain College's adult language programs continues to increase significantly. Yampa Valley Medical Center has a tele-interpreter that gives hospital employees access to an interpreter 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The regional bus service between Craig and Steamboat, which is used heavily by immigrant workers, recorded more than 29,000 riders last year.
The recent proliferation of Mexican restaurants -- and even the emergence of a small Mexican grocery -- is not coincidental.
Such changes are an indication that government, schools and businesses are willing to respond to the community's changing demographics. Still, more can be done.
In a 2003 editorial, we offered some suggestions. They are worth repeating:
We should support programs such as International Evening that educate and promote greater awareness of our diversity.
We should actively seek and welcome the assistance of individuals with language and other skills -- particularly immigrants themselves -- in our schools, hospitals and other programs.
The school district must continue to build its programs. A Spanish program should be integrated into the elementary curriculum.
Employers must understand what assistance is available to immigrant workers and make information about education, health-care and human-services programs readily available to employees.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, residents must reach out to new immigrants to help them feel integrated into, rather than isolated within, our community.
Steamboat and Routt County are changing. Let's embrace that change and create a better, more diverse place to live.