2002-04-14 Holland Sentinel Mentors open new worlds for children

Mentors open new worlds for children
Holland Sentinel

The days between late November and February pass slowly for Frances Rodriguez. She spends that time thinking of her friends and her school and how she misses them.

About the only thing she says she doesn’t miss about Michigan during those months is the cold and snow which, when she thinks about it, she admits actually might not be so bad if she got used to it.

But as Frances learns and plays three months a year in the Texas heat – in the place where she was born and has spent the last 11 winters – she can’t escape the fact that she’d much rather be in Ottawa County with her friends and spending time with her mentor, Isabelle Allen.

“I don’t like it when we leave,” said Frances, who moves south along with her family when work largely stops on Ottawa County farms. “I don’t like the schools there and you don’t go to the beach in Texas.”

Like so many of the migrant worker families who travel every year to West Michigan, the Rodriguez family lives in a camp about nine months out of the year. Her father, the only member of the seven-member family who doesn’t speak English, supervises a crew of migrant agricultural workers during the growing seasons and carriers the family back to Mission, Texas, in the winter.

The switch is difficult for the Rodriguezes, especially for the children.

But they get by, thanks in large part to the work of Allen, who expands the girls’ horizons by exposing her to aspects of the society she may not have been exposed to otherwise.

“We’re more friends than anything else,” said Allen, who is a volunteer mentor working through the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance. “We talk about what happens at school. We go to the WMCA, and we go to the beach. I want us to be friends more than anything else so Frances and her family can feel comfortable here.”

By spending time with a mentor, Frances has been able to see things she didn’t think she’d ever see. Together with Allen, she’s gone canoeing, made cookies and fruit salad and taken bike trips.

The pair hope to make it to Grand Rapids this year to visit museums and maybe a sporting event.

“I try to make it educational too, but without the school stuff,” said Allen, a teacher at a Montessori School in Grand Haven.

A student at Robinson Elementary School in Grand Haven, Francis has acclimated well to the life her family has built in Michigan.

But those who started the mentoring program and those who work as liaisons for the Hispanic community say acclimation is not coming so easily for all Hispanics. So the program is turning into a valuable commodity.

“It’s absolutely vital,” said Teresa Lamb, a representative of the Holland-based Latin Americans United for Progress. “The program has the ability to broaden the choices our kids have. It’s nothing showy or unrealistic. It’s about showing interest in our kids.”

Started three years ago, the program began with 10 participants and doubled in size the next year. In 2002, according to Gail Harrison, executive director of the Diversity Alliance, the number rose to 36.

In its third year, the program is moving into the immediate Holland area and needs more volunteer mentors.

For more information visit www.ethnicdiversity.org