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Changing Faces: McHenry County social service agencies need bilingual staff

Kyle Grillot - kgrillot@shawmedia.com
Big Brothers Big Sisters of McHenry County volunteer Brooke Zurfluh, 15, (from left) hangs out with America, 8, and Estrella, 7,  during an after school program at the Garden Quarter Neighborhood Resource Center  Thursday, December 18, 2014 in McHenry.
Kyle Grillot - kgrillot@shawmedia.com Big Brothers Big Sisters of McHenry County volunteer Brooke Zurfluh, 15, (from left) hangs out with America, 8, and Estrella, 7, during an after school program at the Garden Quarter Neighborhood Resource Center Thursday, December 18, 2014 in McHenry.

Demographic shifts over the last 14 years provide clues to what McHenry County is going to look like in the future. We should expect to be older and more diverse. How well are we situated for the gradually changing population?

This is the second part in our five-part Changing Faces series looking at U.S. Census and other data and an examination of how the housing industry, social services, education and local government is adjusting to changing demographics.

Starting in 2015, the staff at Garden Quarter Neighborhood Resource Center plan to fill a service gap for a growing Latino population identified during the past decade as one most in need of community attention.

Nestled inside a low-income apartment complex in McHenry, Garden Quarter is known for its youth program that has provided after-school assistance predominantly for Latino children coming from impoverished families.

But an increasing number of their Latino parents, who mostly speak only Spanish, are relying on Garden Quarter’s parent program, forcing staff to devise new programs and avenues that connect them with Spanish-speaking services often lacking at social service agencies in McHenry County.

“Because we have seen such a demand for adult and parent services in Spanish, we are starting to grow our parent program,” Garden Quarter Executive Director Licia Sahagun said. “That’s really where we have seen the demand, both from our community here but also outside agencies [in the county].”

Beginning in 2015, Garden Quarter will offer English as a second language (ESL) lessons, computer classes and parenting lessons in Spanish – the latter of which never has been offered in the county, Sahagun said.

After making referrals, other social service agencies in the county see Spanish-speaking clients wait the longest for services since many nonprofits lack qualified bilingual staff.

Dating to 2006, the county’s Healthy Community Survey – released every four years – has identified the Latino population as the foremost group needing more community attention because of its size, language barriers, low-income status and the array of services needed.

The community spotlight comes as the growth among the Latino population in the county significantly outpaces other minority groups. The county’s Latino population totals more than 35,249 people, an 80 percent increase from 2000 to 2010, U.S. Census figures show.

Among the issues identified in the 2014 Healthy Community Survey, many social service agencies reported having no or limited bilingual staff.

The study, prepared by the Health Systems Research at the University of Illinois-Rockford campus, combined interviews with community leaders, an online community survey and research into demographic and social trends to identify needs and improvements.

“I’ve seen a lot of other agencies in the county that are scrambling to find staff members who are bilingual,” Sahagun said.

Likewise, Jane Farmer, executive director of Turning Point, said she has encountered agencies with one bilingual person on staff.

Oftentimes, Spanish-speaking individuals who receive a referral from the county’s domestic violence agency have to wait up to six weeks to receive services, she said.

“There isn’t enough bilingual, bicultural people in the county who are working in nonprofits that can meet the needs of victims,” said Farmer, whose agency employs five bilingual staffers.

Kim Larson, executive director of Family Alliance, said she “feels blessed” to also have five bilingual staff members providing health care services for the county’s growing elderly population. About 10 percent of Family Alliance’s clients are Latino, she said.

The shortage in bilingual staff among the county’s social service groups results from a lack of qualified workers, Larson and Farmer said.

“The certifications that require more education are the positions that are the hardest to fill with bilingual staff,” Larson said. “Those are the challenges. If a degree is required, it’s sometimes harder to fill with a bilingual individual.”

Elsewhere in the county, Big Brothers Big Sisters sees a need for more Spanish-speaking volunteers who can open communication with Spanish-speaking families that use their service, officials from the nonprofit said.

As the Pioneer Center for Humans Services continues to expand and serve more people, the center has added Spanish-speaking staff to better aid the county’s Latino population, said Michele Gill, director of organizational development.

Pioneer in recent years has added bilingual staff to its admissions and behavioral health departments to cut down language barriers and ensure that Spanish-speaking clients receive needed services, she said.

“We are doing everything we can to make sure, as a nonprofit, those clients have access to our services and that language is not a barrier to it,” Gill said.

Other agencies in the county are working to break down barriers to access.

Garden Quarter is working with staffers from Families ETC in Crystal Lake on a directory list that helps Spanish speakers connect easier with Spanish-speaking services offered in the county.

A reference list tailored to Spanish speakers never has existed in the county, Sahagun said. It’s a small but incremental step to connect a minority population often hampered by limited access to transportation, health care, education and income, she said.

“In our county, if you are Latino, you tend to be low-income because it’s a minority population. That’s just the way it is in our county. I think just because you are Hispanic doesn’t mean you need services,” Sahagun said. “It’s really about addressing the needs of the low-income population.”

Part 1: What's changing about the population of McHenry County and how are we adjusting to population needs?

Part 3: Is the housing market well suited for a population that's getting older?

Part 4: What are local educators doing to give students who aren't native English speakers the best chance to succeed?

Part 5: Are the shifts in ethnic diversity being reflected in local elected offices across McHenry County?

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