Outreach team provides array of aid to Hispanics ANNAPOLIS/SOUTH COUNTY--Davidsonville * Edgewater * Shady Side * Deale

January 25, 1993|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Staff Writer

The sign tacked on the front door of Apartment 105 bears the Anne Arundel County logo and says "Centro de prevencion de alcohol y drogas."

An English translation is posted underneath it. But three-quarters of the residents at Allen Apartments, a low- and moderate-income community in Annapolis, understand the Spanish version.

Many are men like Gabriel Perez, who fled the civil war that has divided his native El Salvador for more than a decade. He stops by the Drug and Alcohol Prevention Center not for counseling, but for help with getting his apartment repaired.

Marie Casasco, the Spanish-speaking youth specialist who opened the office in June, is used to such requests. The families from El Salvador, Mexico and Honduras, isolated in a country where few speak their language, turn to her for assistance with everything from filling out forms to grocery shopping.

She and her partner, Clarence "Ed" Watkins, spend at least two days a week at the 99-unit complex off Forest Drive teaching English and running after-school programs. Along the way, they emphasize an anti-drug message.

"This is a community-based prevention project," said Mr. Watkins, 35, who works side by side with Ms. Casasco and is learning rudimentary Spanish. "The first thing about prevention is the needs of the community."

They're outreach workers, there to raise awareness about drug and alcohol abuse. But for the estimated 250 Hispanic people living in Allen Apartments, Mr. Casasco and Mr. Watkins are also amigos -- friends.

They chat with residents, tutor children after school and provide a critical link to understanding the language and customs in a strange land.

"They had a problem here at one time because the men were sitting outside drinking beer," said Ms. Casasco. "Hispanic people are very social. They like to be outside. But they have to learn in America, this is illegal."

Even though the county is increasingly providing bilingual services, Ms. Casasco encourages the Hispanic families to attend her English classes.

"I tell them that they must learn the language here," says the 43-year-old native of Buenos Aires, Argentina, who has been living in Annapolis for four years and speaks fluent English.

In the past year, Annapolis and county officials have pooled resources to help the area's Spanish-speaking residents cope with the language barrier.

The county Health Department began the project in Allen Apartments in June and also hired an interpreter. Nutrition counseling programs for pregnant women and young mothers are now available in Spanish. Several Catholic churches also offer Spanish Masses now.

Nearly 7,000 Hispanic residents live in Anne Arundel County, according to the 1990 U.S. Census. Some 483 of them live in Annapolis, most in the area near Parole. But local officials believe the population may be double the census count.

On a chilly afternoon last week, Mr. Watkins and Ms. Casasco walked around the neighborhood and talked with the families. They hugged children and invited them to the anti-drug program at the center, then stopped to pass the time of day with Mr. Perez, who was finishing a load of laundry.

Mr. Perez told them that he's out of work, but his wife is employed as a housekeeper at a hotel.

Ms. Casasco, translating for Mr. Perez, who speaks only broken English, explained that he takes care of their 2-year-old daughter, Brenda Karina.

"We think we are making a difference here," Ms. Casasco said as she left the laundry room. "They know we're here, and we can help them."

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