A nascent program based in Phoenixville plans to help the growing number of Spanish speakers in 19 municipalities get health and social services. It will train bilingual volunteers from the community to be interpreters because, organizers say, volunteers likely will be more invested in helping their neighbors.
This spring, the Phoenixville Community Health Foundation gave a $12,000 grant to start the program to Nelly Jimenez-Arevalo, the community relations director at the West Chester-based Maternal and Child Health Consortium of Chester County. She has trained interpreters for agencies in the county for eight years.
As the number of Spanish speakers in the country rises, the need for a way to communicate with them increases, too.
The Hispanic population in Chester County rose from 3.7 percent of the population in 2000 to 6.5 percent in 2010. In Pennsylvania, Hispanics made up 3.2 percent of the population in 2000, 5.7 percent in 2010.
In Phoenixville, the proportion of Hispanics rose from 3 percent in 2000 to 7 percent in 2010. Although their numbers are still relatively small, Jimenez-Arevalo, 45, says she hopes her community-based plan can be a model for regions with larger populations of Spanish speakers.
When she moved to Chester County 18 years ago from Venezuela, Jimenez-Arevalo, now in West Chester, was frustrated that people could not understand the English she learned in high school. Helping clients and service providers communicate with each other is now a passion of hers.
"We want to make sure that while they're learning English, we're helping people to meet their basic needs," she said.
Jimenez-Arevalo is recruiting 25 to 30 people in the Phoenixville area to be part of the Language Access Project. The volunteers will help their Spanish- speaking neighbors fill out leases for apartments or make dentist appointments or navigate grocery stores. They also will be able to help people communicate with police officers or medical staff in emergencies.
Several Philadelphia groups offer interpreter training, including the Nationalities Service Center, which has a community-based interpreter training workshop.
Such training helps unify and build communities by leveraging existing relationships, said Claire Jones, who manages the Philadelphia Interpreter Training Program at the Health Federation of Philadelphia.
Smaller organizations and nonprofits, especially those that cater to underserved communities, cannot afford to hire professional interpreters, Jones said.
Trained volunteers can close the language gap.
Fifteen people have volunteered for the Language Access Project and passed the language tests.
But, "it takes more than being bilingual," Jimenez-Arevalo said.
When the three-day training starts in October, the recruits will learn the importance of confidentiality and objectivity.
They will learn to slip fluidly between roles and to speak in the first person. They will do memory exercises.
Vernet Spence-Brown of Exton volunteered. She retired in June 2013 after teaching Spanish at Phoenixville High School for 36 years. In the past, she had been asked to interpret informally while on vacation in Hawaii, in an emergency room where her mother went for x-rays, and in school meetings with families.
"I want to use my Spanish to help out the community," she said.
Yuliana Vazquez has a dedicated new interpreter now and has been in remission for a year and a half. Now that she is healthy and her two young children are in school, she said, she plans to take English classes.
BY THE NUMBERS
Languages for which interpreters were requested at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in the last seven months.
Percentage-point population increase for Hispanics in Avondale, Chester County, over 10 years, 38 percent (2000) to 59 percent (2010).
Percentage-point population increase for Hispanics in Kennett Square, Chester County, over 10 years, 28 percent (2000) to 49 percent (2010).
Percentage-point population increase for Hispanics in Coatesville, Chester County, over 10 years, 11 percent (2000) to 23 percent (2010).
Percentage-point population increase for Hispanics in Oxford, Chester County, over 10 years, 16 percent (2000) to 29 percent (2010).
Percentage-point population increase for Hispanics in West Grove, Chester County, over 10 years, 17 percent (2000) to 35 percent (2010).
Source: 2000 and 2010 U.S. Census and University of Pennsylvania