Spanish students learn language in the community

Georgia Lodewyk—Staff Writer

Contributed photo

Dordt University sophomore Sara DeYoung stood outside in the rain on a Wednesday afternoon. 

She wore a thin black jacket and held a clipboard in her hand. The papers turned soggy as the rain grew heavier. I asked her if she wanted to borrow my umbrella. She shook her head.

“No, I move around too much.”

Contributed photo

Outside the House of Missions and Equipping (HOME) Building, located directly behind the Sioux Center Culver’s, cars lined up, ready to receive their weekly supply of food from the Hope Food Pantry. DeYoung walked up to the first car in line and spoke to the older man inside.

“¿Cuál es tu número? ¿Su dirección?” DeYoung asked for his assigned food pantry number and address. 

When he responded, she wrote down the information, shielding the paper with her hand to keep it dry. Then she asked him how many families he was collecting food for, if he would like laundry detergent this week, and if he wanted a carton of heavy cream. The food pantry had extra of those today. 

Even when giving directions in Spanish, DeYoung knows exactly what to say. And when she doesn’t, when it is clear the Spanish speaker does not understand, she uses a different word she knows and tries again.

“It takes a few times to get the hang of it,” she said. “You have to get the words down and know what phrases to use.”

DeYoung has been here a time or two. Every Wednesday, to be exact. DeYoung, a business and Spanish double major, serves on student government and the business club. Yet, she still finds herself here every Wednesday and often encourages other Spanish students to join her, including me.

DeYoung worked outside for an hour, answering people’s questions in the drive-through and directing them where to park if they need to go inside. Then, Bev Jansen, the volunteer coordinator at the Hope Food Pantry, popped her head out the door, telling DeYoung return indoors to avoid the heavy rain. 

“You have to be flexible when you’re here, or else it does not work,” Jansen said.

Inside the HOME Building, a full lobby of volunteers and shopping carts waited to brave the rain and deliver boxes of food to the cars. Jansen is not only in charge of the volunteers but also organizes the back of the store with nonperishable food items, clothing, purses, games, and hats and gloves for winter. More volunteers, including Jansen’s grandchildren, organized additional boxes for the lineup of cars parked outside. The large space inside the HOME building turns into a fully stocked food pantry and mini store every Wednesday. They serve Sioux Center and the surrounding areas and counties as well. All that the families need is a number.

“There are lots of volunteers, and we love to have bilingual people come in,” Jansen said. “We get to spend a lot of one-on-one time with people.” 

Even on a windy and rainy Wednesday, the food pantry is full of people. DeYoung is constantly on her feet, running around as people tell her, “No quiero comida, solo ropa” and ask her where they can find diapers and extra hats.

I got thrown into the mix when a little girl left her mom and ran outside into the parking lot. She smiled in the rain and kept running. She didn’t understand our English, so it wasn’t until I shouted “¡Ven aquí ahora!” that she returned. 

At Hope Food Pantry, Jansen says bilingual volunteers like DeYoung are essential. In Sioux Center, 15 percent of its residents are Hispanic and many are recent immigrants who speak little English. For Spanish students like DeYoung, volunteering at the Hope Food Pantry provides a way to practice Spanish speaking in a real-life setting. 

Dordt University Spanish professor Dr. Rikki Brons said the setting is one of many opportunities available to language learners in the Sioux Center community.

“There’s one thing to be comfortable and have an A in a classroom setting but being out in the real world and having those pieces and then to know, ‘Oh, that wasn’t perfect.’ But we communicated and I was able to get the point across, even if it wasn’t perfect,” Brons said.

Additional opportunities include Owl’s Nest, a program that matches a college student with a younger child who speaks Spanish. Together, they read and practice language together, allowing students to build personal connections with the kids. 

At another program, Escuelita Familiar, small children and their families gathered to eat a meal organized by community health partners. In the first hour, students played with the kids and visited with the parents. The second hour provided a literacy program, where leaders taught young kids skills they would need to know before preschool, including identifying objects and words and reading.

“There are things that are culturally different. It’s not that the moms at home with their kids don’t do important skills with them, but it looks different,” Brons said. “For example, one of the things we keep encountering is that they don’t let their kids use scissors because it’s dangerous and they protect them from that. Well, if you come to preschool, and you haven’t held scissors in your hand, you’re already five steps behind.”

Brons connected accounting and Spanish major Grace Schmidt with the Escuelita Familiar program. Now in her senior year, she said it has not always been easy to entier into a conversational setting with native speakers. 

“A huge thing I’ve learned is that relationship building and getting connected to your community can really be as simple as showing up,” Schmidt said. “I have been struck by how different my time with them feels than my time at Dordt, even though I’m only a half mile down the road.”

The Spanish club at Sioux Center Christian School allows Spanish-education students to practice teaching Spanish in a classroom setting to elementary school students. Additionally, individual studies opportunities have allowed students to partner with local Hispanic restaurants and businesses, including La Racherita in Sioux Center, to learn more about Hispanic culture and build relationships through cooking and food.

“For students to get out and form relationships… the realization that we’re all human beings and yes, we speak different languages, and we have different experiences, but at our core, we are all made by the same God.” Brons said. 

“We’re not training you for some distant future where you are in the real world. This is the real world. And you can already have an impact.”

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