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Bilingual? Stressed families need you

When Barbara Wolfe retired from a travel agency several years ago, she wanted to do something to give back to the community, so she turned to the Tampa Bay Ronald McDonald House on Davis Islands.

Wolfe, 74, is one of the few volunteers who can speak Spanish to the growing number of Hispanic families that come to stay at the house.

In 2003, the 14-bedroom house at 35 Columbia Drive hosted 354 families, 23 percent of which were Hispanic and could not speak English fluently or at all, said manager Betsy Wilkinson.

As a result, the Tampa House is looking for bilingual on-call or shift volunteers who can work four hours a week. So is the St. Petersburg House.

"More Hispanic families are coming every year," Wilkinson said. "I am becoming more aware that the house needs to meet their needs, because without Spanish we can not provide emotional support."

Wolfe, who learned some Spanish in high school and watches Spanish television frequently, volunteers for four hours every Wednesday. She helps Hispanic families check into the house and tries to make their stay as comfortable as possible.

"When these families come in, we have to explain the rules, give a tour and such," said Wolfe, who lives in Lutz. "While we have a translated written tour in Spanish for them, it would be better if we could make it more personal and have a bilingual volunteer to help them."

The house caters to families from outside the bay area that have children who need treatment at one of Tampa's hospitals. Rather than pay to stay at hotels, the families stay at the McDonald House. If they can afford it, they make donations of $5 to $20 a day. If not, their stay is free.

Marlin Lugo, the mother of Sophia, 4, and Raniero, 11, came to the house last month from Venezuela while Sophia undergoes therapy and surgery for her juvenile rheumatoid arthritis at Shriners Hospital. Lugo said the house would benefit from having more bilingual volunteers.

"(They) could go to the hospitals with us to speak," Lugo said, with Wolfe translating. "It would be much easier for the families to have someone to communicate with daily."

Despite a lack of bilingual volunteers, the house has tried to make accommodations as welcoming as possible for Hispanic families.

"We have the kitchen cabinets labeled in both Spanish and English and we are looking into having a time during the week when all the Spanish-speaking volunteers and families can meet and have cookies," Wilkinson said. "This way they can get to know the families, which really energizes them and makes them feel less isolated."

Shift volunteers check families in and out of the house, answer phones and help families if they need to go the hospital or need to talk. On-call volunteers come in to translate when needed.

Volunteers are also needed for the house's new Los Amigos Latinos Program, which takes families to churches or gets them acquainted with Tampa. Volunteers must be 18 and older, though some teen volunteers are welcome.

For information about becoming a volunteer at the Tampa Bay Ronald McDonald House, call Wilkinson at 254-2398.

Stefanie Green can be reached at 226-3303 or smgreensptimes.com.

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