Salem State Foreign Languages Students Play a Vital Role in the City of Salem’s Work with the Hispanic Community
By Kristine Doll, Department of Foreign Languages
The Salem Council on Aging was recently honored by the city’s Hispanic community for its efforts to reach out to and serve Hispanic senior citizens.
Approximately seventy people crowded the dining room at the Senior Center for a ceremony during which the Bolivarian Dominican Union of Journalists recognized the COA staff and Mayor Kimberley Driscoll. The event was held Sunday, Nov. 6, 2011, to coincide with the anniversary of the adoption of the Dominican Constitution.
José Mendez, representing the Union, presented a framed portrait of Juan Pablo Duarte, revered founding father of the Dominican Republic, to the COA. Medals of merit and certificates were given to the Mayor, COA Director Doug Bollen and Assistant Director Bill Woolley.
“The principles of Duarte are still of vital importance today,” said Mendez, addressing the predominantly Hispanic audience. “We want to honor those people who support those values of morality, civility and justice.”
The event was of great significance to the Hispanic community, especially Dominicans, who have benefitted from the COA’s determination to accommodate them as part of an ongoing outreach program that started three years ago.
At every turn, Spanish-language student-interns from Salem State University’s Foreign Languages Department have contributed to the program’s success.
“The Salem State students have played an absolutely vital role in our work with Spanish-speaking senior citizens,” said the 58-year-old Woolley, who initiated the outreach program. “Without their investment of time and energy, I’d probably have abandoned our efforts a long time ago.”
Beginning in 2008, the Foreign Languages Department established an internship at the COA as part of its community placements course, which focuses on community service. Two Foreign Languages’ students helped launch the COA’s Hispanic outreach program. They were among a handful of people, including Salem Mayor Kimberley Driscoll, who went door to door in The Point to meet and talk to Spanish-speaking senior citizens, while also visiting Hispanic churches and businesses.
The first year of the COA’s outreach program, which included valuable contributions from five SSU Foreign Languages’ students, yielded discouraging results. Only with encouragement from one bilingual volunteer senior citizen, along with another invitation from Dr. Kristine Doll to recruit SSU interns from another of her classes, was the effort extended.
“In my mind, I’d given up,” said Woolley. “I felt we’d done as much as we could to welcome Hispanic senior citizens to take advantage of COA programs and services. After that first year, I had convinced myself to be content that we’d made a good-faith effort that simply failed.”
With two more SSU interns on board in the fall of 2009, however, a comeback was about to begin. Efforts were renewed to find Hispanic senior citizens, determine their needs and break down language barriers. Woolley, himself, began taking Spanish classes through North Shore Community College and secured grant funding to hire a part-time bilingual receptionist at the Senior Center.
The SSU Foreign Languages’ interns kept coming, semester after semester, and were joined by bilingual student volunteers from Salem High School, as well as new-found supporters from The Point Neighborhood Association and other leaders in the Hispanic community.
An abbreviated Spanish version of the COA’s monthly newsletter began to be circulated, information in Spanish was posted online, calls were made, relationships were nurtured and friendships were created.
Today, more than 100 Hispanic senior citizens attend COA functions (which include fiestas featuring Latino-style food and music), depend on COA vans for rides and eat lunches served at the Senior Center, as well as through a home-delivered meals program.
“We’re still not reaching as many Hispanic senior citizens as we’d like to, but we’re welcoming more every week and our Senior Center population of guests has become much more representative of the City’s demographics as a whole,” said Woolley.
This fall, a fiesta held at the Senior Center, was facilitated by the support of SSU intern Cherie Mann. A few weeks later, the November event honoring the Salem COA was emceed by SSU intern Fay Ventouris and photographed by SSU intern Jacquie Turner. An account of the proceedings was published in Spanish-language newspapers El Mundo, La Semana and Siglo 21.
At the conclusion of that event, Woolley said in his speech:
“We set out, three years ago, to give opportunities to Hispanic senior citizens, but I never imagined how much we would receive in return – the friendship of people whose warmth and kindness have had an undeniably positive influence on this place.
“We know there are walls between people everywhere, differences that will divide us if we allow them to. There are walls of language, walls of color, walls of culture and walls of heritage. However, we have simply decided that, in this place and in our hearts, those walls will not divide us. As a result, those whose lives we first sought to enrich, have enriched our own immeasurably.”