Story by Julia DiGiacomo
Through Hispanic Heritage Month and the rest of the year, RISE AmeriCorps host sites offer a wide array of opportunities to help Latino immigrants transition from surviving to thriving in Iowa.
Centro Latino of Iowa, La Luz Centro Cultural, and Linea de Ayuda en Iowa/Iowa Spanish Helpline are three RISE sites whose main mission involves serving Hispanic communities. Each site responds to the unique needs of its surrounding communities.
Centro Latino of Iowa in Council Bluffs serves as the only Latino-based organization in Southwest Iowa. Its services run the gamut from cultural celebrations to resource navigation for immigrants and refugees.
The organization doubled their space in September to supply more room for in-person classes such as computer classes, English classes, and job coaching. Executive Director Ramon Calzada said their HiSET (High School Equivalency Test) class in partnership with Iowa Western Community College helps Spanish speakers gain a high school education in their own language and pursue better jobs.
RISE AmeriCorps members joined Centro Latino for the first time this summer, where they assisted with workforce readiness tasks like job coaching. Starting in October, new RISE members will continue these efforts and assist with classes in Centro Latino’s new space. Calzada said one-on-one support with clients is especially needed.
“AmeriCorps members will work one-on-one guiding the immigrants and teaching them how to access things online, because many don't know how to use a computer,” Calzada said. “They guide them through the information and help with what they need.”
La Luz Centro Cultural joined the RISE AmeriCorps Program over the summer. The nonprofit organization in Hampton educates and empowers immigrants while fostering cultural awareness in Iowa. About 25 percent of Hampton’s population is Hispanic, according to the 2020 U.S. Census. La Luz reflects this community’s needs with a focus on services for Latino immigrants and Spanish-speaking residents.
RISE AmeriCorps members at La Luz assist with English as a Second Language classes to help immigrants adapt to their new lives in Iowa. They also help individuals successfully find and apply for jobs.
Iowa Spanish Helpline, also known as the Línea de Ayuda en Iowa, is a RISE site that has been integral in connecting Spanish speakers across Iowa with information and resources during the pandemic. Founded in the wake of COVID-19 and the subsequent economic downturn, the organization runs a Monday through Friday phone line for Spanish speakers in need. Callers can inquire about COVID-19, finding assistance for basic needs, securing medical appointments and much more.
Spanish Helpline Coordinator Nayely Hurtado said bilingual RISE AmeriCorps members help answer calls and follow-up with clients in need of coordinated assistance. She said their COVID-19 vaccine outreach throughout 2021 was especially beneficial for Spanish speakers who struggled with the online vaccine appointment process.
“We’ve been able to help a lot of Latinos sign up for the vaccines while different agencies are offering clinics,” Hurtado said.
Although Hispanic Heritage Month ends October 15, La Luz, Centro Latino and Spanish Helpline continue impacting the lives of Iowa’s Latino community all year-round. They pave the way for RISE AmeriCorps host sites’ service to Latino immigrants in Iowa.
Soon after COVID-19 hit in 2020, the founders of Línea de Ayuda en Iowa (Iowa Spanish Helpline) witnessed the disproportionate rate that Iowa Latinos were signing up for essential resources and assistance. In a rush to support struggling communities while the economy plummeted, a grassroots, volunteer-run effort took off to connect Spanish speakers in need with support.
The phone line soon gained larger capacity through its partnership with EMBARC and the RISE AmeriCorps program. Now, after over a year of service, the RISE host site has been awarded for its hard work with the Iowa Disaster Human Resource Council’s Volunteer Award. The award ties back to Linea de Ayuda’s roots when volunteers entirely ran the helpline. The organization was also lauded for its disaster assistance after lifting up Latinos through two of Iowa’s most significant recent catastrophes - the derecho and the pandemic.
“I think we got the award because the Spanish helpline helped many more Latinos sign up for a lot of resources,” Línea de Ayuda Coordinator Nayely Hurtado said. “There was a lot of crisis response that was related to COVID-19 or the derecho storm, like helping people sign-up for financial assistance or FEMA assistance.”
.Linea de Ayuda currently operates Monday through Friday from 8am to 5pm for any Spanish speakers in Iowa seeking resources, information, or other support. Needs range from clients looking for housing assistance, to help coordinating health services, to COVID-19 vaccine help, and much more.
The four RISE AmeriCorps members utilize their bilingual Spanish and English skills to efficiently assist clients and help run the daily phone line processes. For example, RISE Members Laura Meza Ramirez and Katherine Berber-Solis answer calls and follow-up with case management--coordinated plans to assist clients. RISE Member Lizbeth Salina Reyes is currently dedicated to creating a detailed map of resources available in Iowa while RISE Member Shalome Musignac-Jordan answers calls in addition to assisting staff with efforts like grant writing.
Most recently, the Línea de Ayuda team has also prioritized vaccine outreach services. The phone line has become a space to help Latinos learn more information in their native language about the COVID-19 vaccines and get signed up for appointments.
Hurtado said consistent communication with the Polk County Health Department was key for planning each step of the vaccine outreach initiative. As a result of the carefully planned project, Hurtado said the Spanish helpline has signed up many Latinos across Iowa for the vaccine at various agencie's’ clinics.
Since the pandemic has pushed many sign-up mechanisms online, Hurtado said many people needed assistance with navigating the online appointment process.
“We helped people sign-up for the vaccine because we realized there were a lot of barriers, not only for Latinos but for a lot of people that don’t have access to computers or might not be as knowledgeable about signing up for things online,” Hurtado said.
From vaccine outreach to case management, the RISE members, staff, and volunteers at Línea de Ayuda have dedicated months to improving access to resources. Their services continue to impact the lives of countless Spanish speakers since the pandemic and the derecho.