Finding the right words
By JENNIFER FARRELL, Times Staff Writer
CLEARWATER -- The women come in the morning, sometimes with children, sometimes on weekends. Occasionally timid, they lean forward and smile at the man kneeling before them in a closet, holding up cans of coffee and beef stew.
"Si," they answer, nodding. "Si."
Set up in April, the emergency food pantry is a new service for needy Hispanics at South Greenwood's Foundation Village Neighborhood Family Center.
It is a place where staff and clients divide time in two: before and after Ben.
The Rev. Benjamin Perez, known to all simply as "Ben," is the non-profit outreach center's first Spanish-speaking volunteer, and as such, has been both a blessing and a curse, according to executive director Judy Walker.
Before Ben, said Walker, the center had no way to communicate with the flood of Spanish-speakers moving into the area in need of help. But after Ben, more Hispanics have heard about Foundation Village, creating an overwhelming demand for service.
"Our high school Spanish is long since very rusty," Walker said Thursday, as Perez doled out food from the pantry, which was set up with memorial contributions after the death of Sam Evans, one of the center's founders. "I need all the bilingual help that we can get."
The influx at Foundation Village points to a massive shift in the city's population.
According to U.S. Census numbers, Clearwater had a phenomenal jump in the number of people age 5 and older speaking Spanish at home, with a spike of 230 percent, one of the largest increases statewide.
In 1990, 2,625 people spoke Spanish. In 2000, that number rose to 8,674. That amounts to 2.8 percent of people 5 and over in 1990, and 8.5 percent in 2000.
City officials estimate the number of Hispanics in Clearwater at close to 17,000.
At Foundation Village, that means budget trouble ahead.
"This is just the tip of the iceberg," said Walker, who is searching desperately for volunteers to lead classes in English. "We're trying to prepare for what's coming."
Much of the increase can be traced to the city's soaring Mexican population, which grew from about 800 people to nearly 5,000 over the past decade.
Silvia Nava, a bilingual teacher assistant at Sandy Lane Elementary, said her work doesn't end at the schoolhouse door.
Many of Clearwater's Mexican immigrants hail from the Mezquital Valley in Nava's home state of Hidalgo, just north of Mexico City.
"When a new family comes I need to guide them," she said. "It's a major change coming to United States ... getting used to a new country, new language, new system. It's overwhelming for them. My job is to do a little bit of everything."
One of the major hurdles facing new immigrants is language, said Nava, who has lived in Clearwater with her family for 10 years.
"When I got here, there was nobody who spoke Spanish, and nobody helped me to understand a new system and make it easier for me to get involved in my children's education," she said. "English was a barrier for me to understand a lot of things."
On Monday, the Alleghany Franciscan Foundation and the county's Juvenile Welfare Board are sponsoring a daylong Hispanic Summit at the Harborview Center to focus on trends in housing, legal issues and human services.
Representatives from county and city government, local businesses, community agencies, health providers and religious groups are scheduled to meet and discuss strategies to address specific needs of the local Hispanic population.
"It's growing so quickly, it brings problems and it brings needs," said Lourdes Mayorga of the Mexican Council of Tampa Bay.
One of those needs, she said, is bilingual summertime child care.
Mayorga's group is organizing a summer camp, taught by two instructors from Mexico. Cost is $15 per week, and children can sign up beginning Sunday at St. Cecelia Catholic Church.
At Foundation Village, Dharma Perez, who is not related to Ben, said she has counted on him during her prolonged hunt for a job.
Her 5-year-old daughter, Natasha, was placed in foster care after getting hurt in a car accident Perez caused while driving drunk, she said. But, with Ben's help, she hopes to get Natasha back during a court appearance this month.
"Most people coming to the center don't speak any English," said Ben, 62, a self-described evangelical missionary who once supported himself by driving an ice cream truck. "I use the facilities or the agencies in the city. If a person is a drug addict, I know where I can take the person. If the person is hungry and I don't have food over here, I know where I can refer this person."
Originally from Puerto Rico, he has made inroads with local Hispanics by circulating fliers advertising his services as a counselor and notary public in churches, grocery stores, restaurants and bars.
He goes to job interviews, doctor visits, court and even jail, with people who don't speak English and can't represent themselves.
Often, people call him at home on Sundays.
He dreams of Clearwater's first Hispanic parade, featuring highlights from a variety of Spanish-speaking cultures.
The first step, he said, will be organizing the local community.
"One of the things Spanish people have to learn is how to vote," he said. "This is the only way the city can know where the Spanish are is when the Spanish vote."
-- Staff writer Jennifer Farrell can be reached at 445-4160. Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
From the Times
North Pinellas desks