Program bridges Hispanics, community

Monday, December 14, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST

JEFFERSON CITY — Moving to a different city or state can be disorienting. Packing up and moving to a distant country in search of a better life can bring the same feelings of uncertainty — especially when the new culture is sometimes not so inviting.

For 10 years, El Puente (translates to 'The Bridge' in English) has helped families and individuals from more than two dozen Latin American countries familiarize themselves with their surroundings and neighbors in Cole and Moniteau counties with the help of the Diocese of Jefferson City.

The four service areas are pastoral ministries, support services, education/training and family life. All areas include traditional celebrations, interpretation, transportation, English as a Second Language classes, a Spanish/English library, counseling and parenting skills.

Sister Margaret Snyder, co-director, remembers the 100 mid-Missouri families El Puente helped within its first year back in 1999.

Today, the staff serves nearly 700 every year.

"Back then, we were twiddling our fingers trying to figure out what our mission would be," Snyder said. "We met some folks at Sunday Mass and in restaurants, and they were our inside connection to what services were needed out there."

The target audience — or those who seek and require the staff's services — are those who have recently arrived to the country and are not familiar with community resources.

What may seem like simple tasks, including applying for a mortgage and making and keeping medical appointments, are some of the areas where the staff offers help.

Snyder said social and economic need are, of course, most often why people reach out to the staff, but that is not the only reason.

Sometimes, it is a matter of finding someone who can give a little push when things don't evenly fall into place.

The biggest hurdle newcomers must overcome is the language barrier - not only with the locals, but with the volunteers and staff.

With more than 20 Latin American countries in two continents, it is not unusual for language to be an obstacle.

To get a better perspective, think of the vocabulary and slang difference between a Texan and New Yorker. The language is the same, the meaning and interpretation of words and expressions is vastly different.

Because staff members have learned and mastered Spanish-speaking skills quite differently, it can confuse the newcomers.

However, the biggest language challenge is with those who do not speak English.

"It's different running into the thinking patterns and attitudes of the dominant culture, the hospitality isn't the best when welcoming a stranger," said Sister Peggy Bonnot.

El Puente's staff boasts more than 1,000 hours per year of interpretation services alone.

After 10 years of aiding and helping Jefferson City's Latin American community, staff members hope they can continue to help and see to it that others are able to welcome the newcomers as friendly neighbors.

"They have brought such a wonderful gift to mid-Missouri, and I only hope others will be able to appreciate that," said Snyder.

In the near future, the staff hopes to continue its mentoring program.

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