Some will find the goal of the local Hispanic Leadership Council controversial: to help Hispanic immigrants better transition into society here.
However, communities in the Tampa Bay area are dealing with some of the negative impacts of poor transitions, such as achievement gaps between Hispanic and other students in local schools; hospital emergency rooms burdened with providing primary care to Hispanic immigrants who know of nowhere else to go; language barriers in schools, work places and neighborhoods; and conflicts with neighbors and neighborhood associations.
There is clearly a high price paid when part of a community is left behind or isolated.
The YWCA Hispanic Outreach Center in Clearwater formed the Hispanic Leadership Council about two years ago, and today it counts as members 23 area organizations, including nonprofits and government agencies. All are focusing on figuring out ways to help Hispanic immigrants assimilate in Pinellas County, thereby reducing the social problems that can result if they don't.
Last year the Leadership Council interviewed more than 4,000 immigrants in Pinellas to learn their needs. The survey led to development of a three-year action plan in five areas of special need:
• Closing the school achievement gap.
• Preparing children to enter school.
• Overcoming language barriers.
• Providing access to health care.
• Finding ways to provide Hispanics, some of whom don't speak English, with vital community information.
One of the needs survey respondents mentioned most often was more access to English classes. It is encouraging that Hispanic immigrants recognize learning English as a priority. It is difficult to assimilate into a new culture if you neither speak nor understand the predominant language, and children in that situation have little chance of achieving in school.
The Leadership Council is scrambling to address this need.
The council has asked the Pinellas school district and local libraries to start English classes and is even talking about putting English classes on local television. With budget cutbacks limiting the opportunity for governments and nonprofits to fund such ventures, this effort may be largely dependent on volunteers stepping forward to help. A longtime network of literacy volunteers that already exists in the county could also be tapped for help or advice.
A thornier problem is access to health care. A summit for health care professionals and organizations, scheduled for mid May, is an effort to find answers.
No one knows how many Hispanics live in Pinellas County, though the last U.S. Census estimated the number at just under 20,000. That's a big number, and it likely has grown. There is no benefit to allowing these county residents to remain sick, hungry, uneducated, uninformed or isolated, then having to deal with the social problems that will undoubtedly erupt as a result. The Leadership Council's work is important, and it is looking for volunteers who agree.