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Breaking Down Barriers and Building Community in Harrisburg

By Kelly Gallagher

Imagine looking at your child's first-grade homework and not understanding the assignment. Or trying to make a doctor's appointment, only to get tongue-tied and flustered while explaining your needs. Everyday tasks can be daunting when you're fighting through a language barrier, but the Spanish-speaking citizens in greater Harrisburg, Pennsylvania have a resource to help them connect the dots: the Latino Hispanic American Community Center.

With nearly 20 percent of the Harrisburg population claiming Hispanic heritage, the closing of the original community center in 2006 due to management changes hit the area hard. It became clear that another center was needed.

"There was a gap in services felt by the surrounding community," says Gloria Vazquez Merrick, Executive Director of the current Latino Hispanic American Community Center, which opened in 2010. "For years [Spanish-speaking community members] had a place where they could learn English, find jobs, get help reading mail they did not understand, and find someone who could speak their language and make them feel truly welcome to come to for help."

In addition to providing information, education, and training to help clients establish a positive future, the community center also helps members of the Harrisburg-area Latino population establish social connections. This is especially necessary for senior citizens, many of whom have found themselves in the role of caregiver to a spouse, a relative with a disability, or to grandchildren. These clients benefit greatly from the "Sharing Wisdom Program," usually conducted in Spanish, in which seniors share their experiences as caregivers with each other.

"The seniors find these empowering. By being informed, they learn how to make the right choices and decisions for both them and their families. Our seniors are an integral part of the community, and we find that when we educate one senior, we are really covering multiple generations and helping way beyond those in our seminars."

Harrisburg-areas students who are interested in learning Spanish and acquainting themselves with a foreign culture are more than welcome to come spend some time down at the Latino Hispanic American Community Center. This provides volunteer opportunities for people interested in learning a new language or lending their neighbor a hand.

"I say to students interviewing for internships, 'If you want a study abroad experience, come to LHACC!'" says Merrick. "Thus far, students from Messiah College, Shippensburg, Harrisburg University, Susquehanna University, Penn State, the McCann School of Business, Cedar Cliff High School, and Harrisburg High School have heeded the call. It is a win-win situation as students practice their Spanish, and get exposure to a diverse community from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Guatemala, Peru, and Mexico. And, we get some extra 'hands on deck!'"

Thanks to the efforts of the Latino Hispanic American Community Center, the Spanish-speaking residents of Harrisburg can gain more control over their lives and build bright futures for themselves and their families. This ultimately contributes to the unity of Harrisburg, helping make it an ever stronger city.

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About The Author

Kelly Gallagher studied creative writing at SUNY Oswego and Vermont College of Fine...

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