Two children, six suitcases and $300. This is all Marisol had when she arrived in Columbus five years ago to start her new life. In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, she’d lost both her home and her job in Puerto Rico. She arrived in Ohio with her savings depleted, but faced an even greater challenge ahead: she spoke very little English.
While Marisol was fortunate to have a friend already situated in her new city, beyond that one contact in a country of 330 million, she felt alone and very lost. The language barrier was an enormous obstacle, keeping her isolated socially while also making it hard to gain employment. The predicament felt overwhelming. Securing food and shelter depended on finding a job, but gaining employment felt reliant on overcoming the language barrier, and learning a new language required finding a place to learn.
Fortunately, Marisol was able to turn to the Our Lady of Guadalupe Center (OLGC), a Catholic Social Services (CSS) community center on the west side of Columbus, near the largest concentration of immigrant Hispanics in central Ohio.
The center works to reduce poverty in our region’s rapidly growing Hispanic population. At OLGC, a bilingual staff understands what people face in trying to build a better life in a new county. They are versed in responding to the unique challenges of immigration and poverty, including lack of access to basic needs and social support, discrimination, and language barriers.
The power of language
While Marisol is not an immigrant, her story was like many at OLGC. She clearly had bravery. What she didn’t have was a sofa or a frying pan, winter coats or sneakers for her children. She did have diligence, but she didn’t have a car to reliably get her to any future job she might succeed in securing. And she had determination, but she knew it wouldn’t get her far if she couldn’t engage in conversation to express herself, advocate for her worth, or respond to inquiries from potential employers.
Thankfully, within a few short weeks of arriving in the US, Marisol was introduced to the OLGC as a resource for both its food pantry, finding housing, help with employment, and its English as a Second Language (ESL) classes. As she recalls now: “At one point, we didn’t have any food. All we had left was the rice and eggs [from the OLGC pantry] — with that my two children and I had the best dinner.”
The food items provided by the pantry were critical, but the ESL classes were pivotal, offering Marisol a social connection with her teachers and fellow students. She worked closely with three different teachers, all the while making friends and gaining a much-needed sense of community— not to mention the language skills she so desperately needed to succeed. She said that the ESL classes began to replace all the negative feelings she had with positivity and hope. For the first time since arriving in Ohio, she felt welcome and enjoyed an environment in which she felt comfortable.
While she was making progress with her English, there were setbacks. An interview for an insurance industry job left her in tears because she couldn’t understand what the interviewer was saying and she couldn’t explain herself. Frustrated, but refusing to be deterred, she grew even more determined to learn her new language quickly.
Within five months of arriving to the states, Marisol did secure employment. Two jobs, in fact: one with a local hair salon and another at a warehouse. She was able to afford her first apartment. By this time, she’d also learned that the food pantry and ESL classes were not the only services offered at OLGC that could help her get her footing.
They come for basic needs but receive so much more
As OLGC Director Ramona Reyes shared: “The food pantry is what often brings people in, but it’s often just an entry point. Once people are here, we can offer them an array of services and comprehensive case management that provides wrap-around support for individualized situations and varied needs.”
Case in point, in May 2018, Marisol began meeting with an OLGC social worker who helped her find a more suitable apartment for her family and coordinated emergency assistance funding that helped cover some of her basic needs.
Marisol recounted: “…the Center donated to/gave me aid — a sofa, linens, kitchen utensils, rent for one month — in summary, everything.”
But it wasn’t everything; it was a beginning. It was a stepping stone that welcomed further advancement on her path. In becoming familiar with the center’s staff and its full array of services, Marisol would later receive further assistance from the onsite lawyer as she began to build a sustainable life for herself and her family.
The barriers that immigrant clients and US citizens like Marisol routinely experience — things like language, employment, and legal issues — were being addressed, one by one, through equal parts patience and tenacity. Eventually, with things falling into place, Marisol was even able to save money, and she began operating a hair salon out of her very own garage.
At CSS, we know that poverty is complicated
As Reyes noted, “Eggs can’t be cooked if someone doesn’t have a pan to cook them in. Someone can’t get a job if they can’t get to the interview. There are so many varied and inter-related elements to achieving sustainability, which is why some clients may be with us for three days and others might work with us for three years. Needs change and they run the gamut, from forks to legal assistance. At OLGC, we stay with clients as long as they need us, providing support at every step of the way.”
For Marisol, the help that she received from the OLGC provided the solid foundation she needed. It enabled her movement from crisis to stability and then to greater plans beyond. Today, she is studying to be a life coach, with her certification test planned for August. She is also still utilizing her relationships with the OGLC to connect her with the Small Business Administration in order to find a brick and mortar location for her burgeoning beauty salon business.
But in addition to Marisol’s ambition and growing independence, what’s equally admirable is her sense of giving back. She shares that she began thinking about how she could help others, asking herself, “Why not help in the exact place where they helped me?” Consequently, Marisol now regularly volunteers in the food pantry, giving others the support and positivity she once herself was lacking.
When asked what her ultimate dream is, now that she’s getting settled and has more resources available to her, Marisol responded: “I have already fulfilled my dreams: I’m here [at the pantry] Wednesday after Wednesday, helping a place that gave me so much when I didn’t know or have anything. I believe that my remaining dreams are to travel and continue helping people.”