Lisette Guerrero is 27, an immigrant from Mexico with a 7-year-old daughter and a 5-year-old son born in the United States.
At a parenting class at the YWCA Hispanic Outreach Center, she spoke recently about interacting with people outside the Mexican immigrant community.
"When I go to get help for my children," she said of a visit to a social service agency, "They ask, 'Do you speak English?' I say, 'No.' They leave me waiting for 40 or 50 minutes."
Now the YWCA and various non-profits and government agencies have launched an effort to integrate the Hispanic immigrant community more into the mainstream.
To start, the YWCA's Hispanic Leadership Council last year interviewed 4,400 immigrants in Clearwater and other parts of the county. That survey helped the council develop a three-year plan to address five areas of need:
• Closing a school achievement gap between Hispanic students and others in all grades.
• Closing an information gap so Hispanic residents get information about things like changes to school enrollment plans and hurricane preparedness.
• Preparing young children for school.
• Overcoming the language barrier.
• Improving access to health care.
Last year's survey paints a portrait of a community struggling with low pay, food shortages, housing problems, overcrowding, language barriers, minimal access to health and mental health services and concerns about children.
"This is a very stressed community," said Maria Nieves Edmonds, the Hispanic Leadership Council's chairwoman.
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The U.S. Census puts the number of people of Mexican descent at 7,500 in Clearwater and 19,900 total in Pinellas County.
It estimates there are 17,800 other people in the county with roots in other Latin American countries. The census also counts 17,600 people of Puerto Rican descent in the county. Though American citizens by birth, Puerto Ricans often face the same language barrier as immigrants from Latin America.
One of the findings of the survey is that Hispanic immigrants are largely working poor, though few said they need help finding work.
"Their work ethic is very high," Edmonds said. "They would give back to the community, but they need to learn how."
But some are in the country illegally. That and other factors lead to gaps in things such as social services and transportation because they cannot legally get driver licences.
The survey also found that one of the biggest needs in the community is access to health care.
Many immigrants don't get medical care until they end up in the emergency room because they lack insurance and are ineligible for public assistance.
The adults interviewed had 275 children, more than half younger than 5. The children have limited English skills as they head for first grade.
Many adults list more opportunities to take English classes as one of their main needs.
That finding pleases the Hispanic Leadership Council, which sees English as the key to assimilation.
"When you learn a language you learn a culture," Edmonds said. "That is essential."
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In its brief existence, the leadership council already started initiatives toward the five goals it developed from the survey.
It is working with the Pinellas County school district adult education section and libraries to establish English classes. The classes would take place after hours since many immigrants juggle more than one job. The council also is working on a plan to put English classes on public-access television.
On May 15 the council is sponsoring a summit for health providers at the Hospice of the Florida Suncoast to address immigrants' health-care gap.
To address community's stress, the Hispanic Outreach Center also is looking to hire a bilingual mental health professional.
And a YWCA employee — former sheriff's deputy Leo Cordero — is counseling Hispanic students and families at Largo Middle School.
"I never had worked with this group of children," Largo Middle School principal Fred Ulrich said. "I thought we were doing okay with them. All of a sudden they wrote a letter to the Hispanic Leadership Council saying they felt unwanted here."
Jose Cardenas can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4224.