BY ELIZABETH CHILD
ILLUSTRATION BY OCHEN KAYLEN
PHOTOS BY ALLI JAGODA
LAYOUT BY KELLY BARAK
THE BRIGHT pink building that houses Centro on 19th Street and Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis is an oasis on a wind-whipped, gray day. But even more inviting are the bright-eyed children inside, who circle St. Catherine volunteer Latrinka Owens '09 as she reads from the book Chicka Chicka Boom Boom.
The youngsters are attending the national award-winning bilingual preschool Siembra ("to sow or to seed") within Centro, a multifaceted service center for Latinos and a St. Catherine community partner. Spanish is the first language for most of the 3- to 5-year-olds, but they hang on every English word.
Watching the curiosity and engagement play out on faces at Centro this day, it's hard to assess who gets more out of this vibrant partnership – Centro's clients or the college students. That is why the relationship has flourished.
St. Kate's seeks out or is asked to partner with community organizations largely because of its social justice mission, nurtured by the Sisters of St. Joseph who founded the College. "A community partner must reflect the principles of Catholic Social Teaching," says Professor Emerita of English Ann Redmond, CSJ, who directs St. Kate's Center for Women, Economic Justice and Public Policy. The first principle – "Life and Dignity of the Human Person" – is especially important, she says.
Redmond also asks, "How can students learn from the partnership, and how can those teachings be incorporated into the curriculum?"
Today the College has many community partners. Students read to children at schools, complete internships at community health centers, and tutor new immigrants learning English in community education programs. "We offer students rigorous, meaningful academic learning and employment positions that also meet the needs of community organizations, which gain from the skills, knowledge and experiences our students bring with them," says Martha Malinski, director of community work and learning at St. Kate's. "We are teaching students to be ethical leaders working in partnership with the community in which we belong."
A partnership evolves
The partnership with Centro began in 2001 when Susan Pauly, director of the Learning Center on the Minneapolis campus, was searching for a food shelf in need of donations. She visited Centro and was surprised by the quality and breadth of its programs – as well as the unmet need for food. At the time, approximately 50 families depended on Centro's food shelf.
Centro aims to shape strong, proud individuals while strengthening families and a sense of community, says Tyrone Guzman, Centro's executive director.
"For children of immigrants, in particular, it's a given that they'll learn English language and American culture. The concern is that they're losing their own culture," says Guzman, a second generation Mexican American and a William Mitchell Law School graduate. "We serve them with dignity and respect. When they enter Centro, they enter a place that recognizes their culture and their history."
Shortly after Pauly started volunteering at Centro's food shelf, she realized that the Centro staff could benefit St. Catherine. They could teach faculty, staff and students about the culture and historical roots of Latino people, as well as the challenges of integrating into North American culture. And they could educate students in the College's School of Health about indigenous healing practices that complement clinical medicine.
Meanwhile, Centro was eager to promote higher education for its staff and students. "A two-way partnership was really important to me and the College," Pauly says. But she wanted to start slowly. Having run a homeless shelter and an HIV/AIDS service organization in Ohio, she knew that short-staffed nonprofits have to supervise students around any confidential information. And Centro needs staff translators on hand for students who don't speak Spanish.
Pauly also wanted to be sure that volunteers avoided making assumptions about the population they would serve, including the stereotypes that most Latinos are recent immigrants or are poorly educated.
Toward a strong self-image
Pauly and Associate Dean of Health Professions Toné Blechert initiated the partnership by asking Centro to present several learning forums for the St. Catherine community. "Research showed us that Latino women were not succeeding in high school – they have one of the lowest success rates of all ethnic groups – and very few went on to college," Blechert says. "This was a particular concern for us as a Catholic college for women. We wanted to learn more and try to make a difference for that constituent group."
Centro tries to help Latino people reverse those negative self-images. A "welcome" sign in Spanish and colorful Mexican paper streamers frame the front door. "From the moment you walk in, Centro surrounds its clients with a welcoming bilingual and bicultural environment," says Nora Murphy, a fund developer for the organization.
Centro teaches preschoolers the history and literature of South and Central America. It offers Mayan massage for pregnant women along with more technologically based medicine in an onsite clinic.
The collaboration grows
In Latino cultures women traditionally have had little decision-making power. Even when it comes to her well-being in childbirth, a woman will look to the man in the relationship to decide whether the birth will be vaginal or a cesarean section or if anesthetics will be used, says Roxana Linares, Centro's education department director.
Interacting with St. Catherine faculty and student volunteers provides Centro clients with strong women role models. "Seeing women who are professors or are students pursuing careers is empowering," Linares says.
Likewise, students learn by volunteering. "They communicate with the people they meet here," Linares says. "They become friends and their impressions ripple outward, so in the future the students won't bring stereotypes about Latino people to their professional life."
Centro and St. Catherine also co-sponsored the 2006 Minnesota Latino Fatherhood Conference aimed at helping young men heal from violence in their own lives and prevent violence in their communities.
Last year, to encourage more young people to attend college, St. Catherine made its Compass test available to Centro's high school students. Used to help measure academic strengths and weaknesses of first-year students entering associate degree programs, the test revealed where they may need to prepare for college-level course work.
St. Catherine faculty members continue to deepen the partnership with Centro. Pauly, whose adopted Mexican-American daughter, Yolanda, attended Siembra, now sits on Centro's board of directors. Barb Kloetzke, a St. Kate's OTA instructor, has been working to make Centro a consistent volunteer site for OTA students. The on-site medical clinic, newly sponsored by Fairview hospitals, may soon attract School of Health student-interns who want a multicultural experience.
Centro raises funds for two scholarships to St. Catherine each year, which the College matches. Mariana Alfaro, a scholarship recipient who also works full time at Siembra, appreciates the opportunity the scholarship offers. "I love the small classes and one-to-one conversations with teachers," says Alfaro, who is enrolled in the bachelor of nursing program at St. Catherine and hopes to go on to medical school. "St. Kate's is more welcoming, open and understanding than other schools I've been in."
As another academic year begins, Centro's students will again be pushed to do their homework, get good grades and think about attending college. Siembra preschoolers will visit the campus to get a taste of what's possible if they study and set goals. Teens in the youth program will be invited to learn about health professions and stay overnight in residence halls.
The will to succeed can't be forced. But the desire to learn about college is now coming from Centro's youths themselves. As Linares exclaims, "One student was just asking me, 'When are we going to St. Kate's?'"
Elizabeth Child is a freelance writer and communications consultant in Northfield, Minnesota.
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