Group bridges cultural divide

United Hands extends aid to Hispanic immigrants

`We want to be a guide'

Focus is on navigating social, school systems

Carroll County

December 08, 2003|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,SUN STAFF

While teaching English to Hispanic immigrants in Carroll County, Jenni Sharkey found herself inundated with parents' questions about vaccinations and other requirements for enrolling students in school.

Similarly, Elena Hartley was approached by Hispanic immigrants who attend the Spanish-speaking Mass at St. John Roman Catholic Church in Westminster, inquiring about apartment rentals and other social service needs.

Both women saw a need to serve the growing Hispanic population in Carroll County. So, a year ago, Sharkey and Hartley started United Hands of Carroll County, an advocacy group whose mission is to help recent immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries navigate Carroll's education, social and economic systems.

"We want to make a bridge between the different languages and culture," said Sharkey, 39, of Hampstead, who for three years taught English to immigrants for the Carroll County school system.

"We want to be a guide for them," added Hartley, 35, a Westminster resident who works as a customer service representative at a local bank.

In Carroll County, Hispanics make up 1 percent of the 150,897 residents, according to the 2000 Census. But Hartley and Sharkey say there are more immigrants who have not been counted, especially migrant workers during the summer.

Both women were born in Peru and became U.S. citizens in the mid-1990s. They say they understand what recent immigrants are going through because they faced the same challenges.

"The first year, I felt handicapped," said Sharkey, who is pursuing a master's degree in bilingual education at McDaniel College.

Even though Sharkey learned English at a school in England, the nuances and dialect were different in America, she said.

The name of their organization is meant to symbolize the organization working hand-in-hand with the county and other community groups to improve the quality of life for Carroll's Hispanic community, they said.

With the help of a third volunteer, Sharkey and Hartley work out of their homes, relying on word of mouth from their friends and other contacts to spread the word about the organization.

They are providing translation and information services, referrals and guidance to recent immigrants who are looking for employment, housing and have health needs.

One such person who received assistance from the organization was Angelina Araujo, 33, who came to Westminster in September last year from a small town outside Mexico City.

Araujo, who works at a factory making men's clothing, said she didn't know where to turn when she ran up $25,000 in medical costs after an appendix operation in December last year.

She found Hartley, who put her in contact with the county Department of Social Services, which helped her with her medical expenses.

"Elena is the angel of my case," Araujo said in Spanish. "I could not have paid the bills on my own. I don't know what I would have done without Elena."

Eventually, Hartley and Sharkey want to open a center in Carroll County where recent Hispanic immigrants, as well as those from other countries, can find information and get social services, including language and health care classes and day care.

In the past two months, they have been meeting with county and local officials to solicit help and resources, including a temporary location for their organization.

This month, Sharkey and Hartley are expected to meet with their state lawmakers and a representative of the county commissioners.

Meanwhile, Hartley and Sharkey are waiting to hear from the state regarding the group's incorporation so that they can receive nonprofit status from the Internal Revenue Service, which would allow United Hands to apply for state and federal grants as a nonprofit organization.

For information about United Hands of Carroll County, call 717-634-6121.

Sun staff writer Jason Song contributed to this article.

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