First stop for Hispanics in Anne Arundel County

Champions of Hope: Maria Casasco helps Spanish-speaking immigrants find their way.

April 01, 2001

A GLIMMER OF recognition registered in the Hispanic busboy's face as he cleared a lunchtime table at the busy Annapolis Double T Diner.

The young man took a chance and asked the customer her name, in Spanish.

"Maria Casasco," the woman replied.

The man's suspicions were correct. This was the woman he needed to talk to. This was the woman most Hispanic immigrants need to talk to when they come to Anne Arundel County.

The two conversed in Spanish for a moment, enough time for the young man to explain his problem. Then Ms. Casasco pulled out her business card and told him to call her office.

She will help him. Maria Casasco helps everybody.

* * *

In Annapolis' growing Hispanic community, Ms. Casasco has become a familiar face and an invaluable resource for Spanish-speaking immigrants. It doesn't matter whether they come from Mexico, Central America, South America or the Caribbean. It doesn't matter whether they are political leftists or rightists. When they settle in Annapolis and need help adapting to their new land, Ms. Casasco comes through for them.

The U.S. Census Bureau recently reported that the nation's Hispanic population is rising rapidly, equaling -- or nearly equaling -- the nation's African-American population. Census figures put Anne Arundel County's Latino population at nearly 13,000 -- almost double the 1990 Census numbers. Ms. Casasco's dogged efforts have eased the transition for Hispanic immigrants, who drive the population growth.

Ms. Casasco works for the Anne Arundel County Health Department. She was hired nine years ago to launch the Hispanic Initiative, which aimed to prevent drug and alcohol abuse among the county's Hispanics.

Her job description means nothing. The Hispanic Initiative was her baby, so she raised it to fit her vision. The program expanded from prevention services to become a comprehensive resource for immigrants. Latinos go to her for referral services, counseling, literacy instruction, parenting classes and citizenship courses.

If she can't give immigrants the services, she'll point them in the right direction.

The busboy is one example. The young man, Ms. Casasco explained, was a recent arrival from Mexico who needed a driver's license. First, he had to find someone who spoke his language and could help him navigate the Motor Vehicle Administration's rules.

"This happens all the time," she said, adding that Hispanic people often recognize her in public and ask to link them to government services, job training or housing.

Ms. Casasco's base is the Allen Apartments in Annapolis, which has become predominantly Hispanic in recent years. She works from a small pool house that the apartment complex's manager generously charges her $1 a month to rent. It's just her. No secretary, no receptionist.

Her telephone rings almost constantly during the day, which is why uninterrupted meetings at her office are impossible. When she took three days off recently, 62 callers left messages on her two lines.

Perhaps Ms. Casasco helps because she can relate.

She immigrated here from Buenos Aires 13 years ago, along with her three children, who were 10 years, 7 years and 18 months old. The daughter of an Argentine army general, she had lived a privileged life in South America. She had graduated from college and worked as a clinical psychologist.

Ms. Casasco arrived in Annapolis, where her American in-laws lived. She got a lot of help from them, but found it difficult trying to help herself. She didn't speak English, and she was unqualified to practice psychology because she doesn't have the necessary advanced degrees.

But her experience as a newcomer struggling to adapt to this country -- and to Anne Arundel County -- taught her everything she needed to know to help those who came after her.

She wanted to pave the way for immigrants. So when the county's health department started a drug and alcohol prevention program for Hispanics, she applied for the job and landed it.

Ms. Casasco will tell you that she does nothing spectacular. She has started an after-school program that brought Naval Academy midshipmen to the Allen Apartments. She has helped people fill out forms. She has told confused people where to get health and other government services.

Small potatoes?

No, big deal.

"I saw her bring tears to the eyes of someone explaining how to redeem a 50-cents-off coupon," said Rick Ferrell, president of the Organization of Hispanics/Latin Americans of Anne Arundel County. "Simple things like that are so valuable to people."

These simple things have made a big difference for countless numbers whose lives she has touched. Piece by simple piece, Maria Casasco has built a mountain of hope.

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