Languages and Identity in Appalachia: The Hispanic Outreach Program Helps Forge a New Sense of Community

Amanda Joy, ’15 and Emily Hall, ’16Leave a Comment

Though the term Appalachian has historically been associated with “mountain whites,” the Appalachian region is and has been inhabited by a diverse and colorful population. One of the most powerful voices to draw attention to this has been Kentucky Poet Laureate Frank X. Walker, who coined the term, “Affrilachian,” and along with his college roommate, Ricardo Nazario y Colón, co-founded the now famous Affrilachian Poets to raise awareness about diversity in the region and provide a coherent sense of identity. Together, Walker and Nazario y Colón helped bring attention to the contributions made by African-American and Hispanic-American populations living throughout Appalachia.

Hispanic-Americans are one of the fastest growing demographics in Appalachia, and are often overlooked, despite living in the region for generations. Over the last ten years, the Hispanic population has grown by over 150 percent in Madison county alone, and as these demographic changes alter our understanding of what it means to be Appalachian, new opportunities for cultural dialogue and service have developed. It was out of this new understanding that the Hispanic Outreach Project (HOP) at Berea College was created.

HOP is one of many community service projects operating through the Center for Excellence in Learning Through Service (CELTS), described by director Ashley Cochrane as “the home for student community engagement and student service at Berea College.” While HOP has grown into a full-blown program in recent years, it developed out of a series of class projects initiated by Professor Fred de Rosset. Cochrane recalls, “the roots of HOP go way back. Fred de Rosset is a faculty member in the Foreign Language Department, a Spanish professor. For years, he had incorporated community work with his teaching and worked to get students out into the community.” Among many important projects, Cochrane cites de Rosset’s work in training police forces to improve their service to Spanish-speaking communities in their cities. “That started in Lexington, but the model that he helped to develop and implement there has been implemented nationally and internationally.” With this previous experience and his connection to the Spanish-speaking community in Madison County, it only seemed natural that de Rosset would incorporate service to the Berea community in his classes.

HOP Project Manager Isaac Ball describes HOP’s mission as “striv[ing] to unite the Spanish-speaking community with the English-speaking community.” It does this by addressing the needs of the Hispanic population in Madison County and surrounding areas—needs as varied as English as Second Language (ESL) classes or free dance classes meant to encourage socialization among community members. To bridge the divide between the Spanish-speaking and English-speaking, HOP offers a wide variety of programs and services to both. “Some of them are focused on people who are Spanish speakers to develop English language skills, and some of it is helping English speakers to develop Spanish language skills,” says Cochrane.

Volunteers and staff of HOP teach Spanish classes at the Berea College Child Development Lab and local elementary schools. They also tutor children who need academic help that their parents may not be able to give them due to language barriers or other reasons. For older members of the community, HOP offers ESL tutoring and translation services. Jaeden Chatham, ’16, one of the HOP student team members, says, “we’re trying to make it so that the differences in the community are not seen as differences as much as they are seen as what we can learn from each other, because everyone has something of value to bring.”

In Berea, HOP is reaching out to the non-English speaking community, helping meet needs and reduce struggles. However, the work of HOP goes beyond simply assisting families in overcoming language barriers. By providing elementary students with help on their homework, HOP provides them with a gateway to their futures. By equipping parents with job skills in a new language, HOP is helping families stay together.

The 2014-2015 student staff who carry out all of these programs include Ball and Chatham, and also team members like Lydia Roots, ’17, and Lizbeth Saucedo, ’16, and translator Anna Taylor, ‘17. This student team works well together with the help and support of the four permanent CELTS staff and Professor de Rosset. The majority of HOP’s volunteers come from de Rosset’s SPN 310 class, and participation is a required part of this course. The class fulfills an Active Learning Experience perspective while simultaneously supporting Berea College’s commitment to interracial education as a form of service.

Cochrane says helping students find their passions is one of the most inspirational aspects of HOP. “We have had several students working with HOP through the years who have said to us, ‘My work with HOP changed my life.’ And that is just really powerful. That through HOP they have been able to decide this is what I want to do with my life. Just to be a small part of helping students to figure out how they can use their own particular knowledge, passion, and skills to help strengthen their own communities. It’s very rewarding.”

Dia (Berend) Odonyo, ’07, is one of the many Berea graduates over the years who used the experiences and skills she gained from HOP after graduation. “My first job after Berea was at a local community health center that served primarily Hispanic, Spanish-only speakers. I worked there for nearly six years, and I absolutely used what I learned from HOP experiences to better serve the patient population there. In fact, I have benefited from my HOP experience at every job and position I have had since Berea.” She goes on to say that, “I always loved that there was a service-learning aspect to some of [de Rosset’s] courses. Like many students, I had never experienced ‘service-learning’ before. Sure, I had taken advantage of any volunteer opportunities in my life but not engaged in the full, enlightening experience that is service-learning.”

HOP volunteers leave the program with fun memories made along the way. One service HOP offers is teaching Spanish to five-year-olds in the Child Development Lab. Chatham volunteered there while she was in de Rosset’s Spanish 310 class. “In the room we were in, there was this big rug with different pictures of animals on it. One day we taught the kids the names of a bunch of different animals in Spanish. We had all of the kids in teams stand on different sides of the rug. Then we would call out the name of an animal in Spanish. One person from each team at time would run to the picture of that animal. Whoever got there first would win. And they absolutely loved it!”

Volunteer Megan Newbanks, ’17, comments on how a classroom full of third graders impacted her life. “On the last day we came in with a surprise for the kids, a piñata. When we walked in trying to hide a massive colorful blob full of candy, we were greeted with happy squeals as they tried to hide something from us, too. As we pulled out the piñata, they pulled out handmade thank you notes. It was one of the sweetest moments!”

By raising awareness and working to address the needs of the Hispanic population in Appalachia, HOP helps to bring communities together so that all can benefit from each other’s experiences and understandings. The Hispanic population is just one more face of diversity within the beautiful Appalachian region and, as Walker puts it, it is important to “understand how much strength there is in collaborating and working together.”

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