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County language bank breaks down barriers

If you are Cuban, Vietnamese, Italian or even Serbian and speak little or no English, Hillsborough County employees are ready to take your phone calls.

The new county Employee Language Bank lists 102 employees who can converse in foreign languages. The bank offers translations in 15 languages, including Arabic, Persian, Hungarian and Hebrew.

The bank was started about two weeks ago. It's the brainchild of Tony Morejon, chairman of the Hispanic Employee Council and a records manager in the county administrator's office.

"A lot of times people come and they don't speak English yet," Morejon said. "That doesn't mean we should turn them away."

Most of the employees translate Spanish.

"We get a lot of Spanish-speaking people calling about the summer job program," said Juan Cabrera, an employment training specialist.

Last summer the program received about two calls a day, Cabrera said. This year is not as busy. It averages "maybe one call every two weeks."

Cabrera, who is from the Dominican Republic, has been translating Spanish for two and a half years for his department.

Although no great demand exists for people who speak Serbian and Croatian, Charles Mikitich can speak and understand both languages. The languages are very similar when spoken but totally different when written, said Mikitich, an environmental specialist in the public utilities department.

"I live in St. Petersburg, and there's a Serbian orthodox church two blocks away from me," Mikitich said. "There are (Serbian and Croatian) people around, but all the ones I know have picked up English."

Mikitich said his father fled Yugoslavia when he was 17 years old.

"The ones just getting here probably speak no English . . . if they can get in," Mikitich said.

There isn't much demand for German translators, but Ursela Westerbeck, who moved from Wiesbaden, Germany, in 1970, is available should the need arise. She said she got a call from someone who spoke Dutch and "they (health department workers) couldn't tell the difference." "Most (Germans) speak English and French," said Westerbeck.

Brochures on the Employee Language Bank are available at the county courthouse information desk, 419 N Pierce St. County employees who wish to join the bank and have access to a telephone most of the day can call the Citizen Action Center at 272-5900.