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Coronavirus changes life for Escuela SMART, Latino-focused Agencies

By La Prensa Staff


The coronavirus pandemic abruptly ended classes for Escuela SMART, Queen of Apostles, and other schools in the Toledo area. Now Latino agencies are bracing for a “new normal” with the governor extending those school closures until May 1, 2020.


Escuela SMART canceled its annual Dia de los Niños celebration in April, which has developed into a school fair allowing families to celebrate the academic success of their children. Likewise, Latino nonprofits have canceled programs and events and postponed fundraisers, while repurposing their missions to meet needs related to the ongoing pandemic.


For example, the Sofia Quintero Art and Cultural Center (SQACC) is providing free meals to students in the Old South End. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, the center’s staff and volunteers join forces to pack 100 brown bag lunches and hand them out at noon. Since there is no high school in the Old South End providing free meals to students, Nana’s Kitchen has become an important source of nutritious meals for kids.


“Bowsher (High School), when you don’t have transportation, can still be far for families in the Old South End,” said Taylor Burciaga, SQACC executive director. “So that’s when we looked at Nana’s Kitchen and looked at one of our grants, which is supposed to be teaching about healthy cooking and thought about how we could still use the grant, still use the kitchen and donations.”


Ms. Burciaga stated the Tuesday-Thursday lunches helps fill the entire week for kids, adding to other free meals being provided by Queen of Apostles on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. By the end of the first week in April, SQACC will have handed out 600 brown bag lunches, which has reinvigorated the staff—because they see the direct impact of their efforts.


“It’s awesome. It allows them to see firsthand why it’s so important for us to do what we do,” said Mrs. Burciaga. “They’ve been really excited we’ve been able to do this. For me, I don’t always get to have those direct interactions with the community. It’s been awesome for me because I’ve been in the kitchen twice a week putting these meals together.”


The SQACC executive director spoke with one mom by phone who needed food for her family and a neighbor’s brood. Between them, they had nine kids. SQACC was able to meet their need.


The nonprofit’s art coordinator already had been thinking beyond the lunches when the governor announced schools would be closed until May 1. Now, SQACC is adjusting its arts mission by putting together 800 art kits to give to students from Escuela SMART and Queen of Apostles.


“It’s really cool. Each kit is cultural,” said Mrs. Balderas. “We totally understand that clothing, food and transportation are essential right now. But for the kids, art can be such a huge way for them to express themselves, especially right now. It can be really scary for them. It can be really stressful for them. Some of them need that creative outlet. These art kits can really help with that part of the curriculum they’re really not having right now.”

SQACC is working to secure the $4,000 in funding that will be needed to pay for the art kits, which Mrs. Balderas hopes to distribute sometime in mid-April.


The art kits were welcome news to Escuela SMART school officials, who now have to plan for kids being out of the classroom for at least seven weeks, instead of the original three. Educators there have turned into social workers, too—trying to help struggling families as much as possible. A survey just went out to parents to gauge their ongoing concerns and needs.


“We just want to make sure we’re meeting the parents’ needs,” said Jessica Molina Kuhlman, Escuela SMART principal. “We can sit back and guess what our parents need, but we really need to hear from the parents what they need. With the most recent announcement, finding out what our parents need is more urgent now.”


Trying to keep elementary students sharp on their bilingual skills is an added challenge other schools don’t face, admitted Mrs. Kuhlman. The so-called “blizzard bags” sent home with academic lessons can only do so much.


School officials have compiled online outlets for speaking Spanish, but most families don’t have Internet access at home. Escuela SMART leaders have tried to spread the word about an offer by Buckeye Broadband to provide free Internet service to families who cannot afford it and qualify.


“Hopefully we’ve connected most of our families in need of Internet to Buckeye directly so they can get that need met,” said Mrs. Kuhlman. “I’m really grateful for our staff in all of this. These are unprecedented times and I think everybody’s just figuring out what do we need to do and how quickly can we do it.”


Adelante staff is mostly working from home, checking by phone on the overall well-being of clients and families and answering questions related to the coronavirus pandemic.


“When this thing first started, there was a real sense of panic,” said Sabina Elizondo-Serratos, Adelante executive director. “People were calling to say they had never bought sanitizing wipes before because they can’t afford them and not something in their budget. So they’re panicking because people are telling them they need them.”


Adelante this week received word it would receive a $5,000 emergency grant from the Greater Toledo Community Foundation. That money will go toward “household help kits,” to provide needy Latino families a variety of items they cannot afford—disposable wipes, personal hygiene items, and even food, in some cases. Ms. Serratos estimates those will be available mid-April.

“That way I think we’ll be able to help more families as opposed to first-come, first-served, and all of sudden all of the money is gone,” she said. “We have to think creatively in order to impact more families than just a few.”

Community health workers continue to make home visits with pregnant clients and mental health caseworkers are doing the same with the families they see on a regular basis. In addition to client families, Adelante’s staff has become the go-to for the local Spanish-speaking population.

“There’s a genuine fear of the unknown. But you add in the language barrier, you add in an undocumented status and that anxiety, in some cases, is quadrupled for our clients,” said Mrs. Serratos. “We have to make sure we are there to answer a call of ‘what do I do?’ or ‘I don’t understand what the governor just said.’ We’re serving a different purpose just because it’s become a free-for-all now.”

Mrs. Serratos fears for the academic progress of students from Spanish-speaking families who may not understand the nuances of homeschooling their children during the pandemic. Adelante staff are reaching out and offering homework help to the 200 or so students in the nonprofit’s youth programs—but she called that a “drop in the bucket” for the number of students enrolled elsewhere besides Escuela SMART and Queen of Apostles.

“I’m really concerned about that,” she said. “I’m hoping by the end of this, we make some intentional changes for some impact.”

The Believe Center had to close its sports programs and afterschool activities ceased once schools went on a three-week hiatus. But the center’s toughest decision was to temporarily end its child care operation when state restrictions forced day care centers to seek a special pandemic license to continue operating.

Instead, leaders at the Believe Center have been working the phones, talking to and encouraging kids, and passing out food baskets to needy families who participate in the center’s activities.

“A lot of what we’ve been trying to do is share information with our families,” said assistant director Elaina Hernandez. “When we hear about food giveaways, lunches, different kinds of programs as far as education, we’ve been really trying to get that information to our families.”

El Corazñn de Mexico Ballet Folklorico, which normally practices at The Believe Center, instead has the dance troupe holding practices digitally via the teleconferencing service Zoom.


But the biggest impact at The Believe Center these days is ensuring the kids have someone they can talk to, helping them maintain their mental well-being during a time of social isolation.


“A lot of the kids are lonely and just able to talk to somebody. Text messaging is great, but it’s not the same as actually talking to somebody,” said Ms. Hernández. “But we’ve always had that aspect to us. It’s not just about the sports. Sports just give us access to the kids. Our mission has always been that we have happy kids or they know there’s an adult who cares about them.”


Opening Day festivities originally scheduled for this weekend at the new multi-purpose sports complex at Danny Thomas Park are now canceled. Baseball hall-of-famer Cal Ripken, Jr., was supposed to fly into town to throw out the first pitch. Now Believe Center leaders fear a spring and summer baseball season could fall victim to the coronavirus pandemic, too.


According to Ms. Hernandez, they’re looking at creating an informal intramural fall baseball league that would run alongside soccer and flag football programs at the multi-sport complex. That’s just another example of how everyone is trying to adjust to that “new normal,” while also planning for the uncertainty that still lies ahead—and the prospect that “new normal” could last a long time to come.




Copyright © 1989 to 2020 by [LaPrensa Publications Inc.]. All rights reserved.
Revised: 03/31/20 15:50:10 -0800.




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