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Latino Leadership Offers Back-To-School Helping Hand
By Maria Padilla
August 7, 2002
It was a steamy Saturday, one better suited for the sand and surf, and yet hundreds of Hispanics turned out for the third back-to-school fair organized by Latino Leadership at Jackson Middle School in Orlando.
Scores of families lined up for free eye tests, free vaccinations and free haircuts -- not to mention free information on everything fromschools to voting, drivers licenses, local and county government and much, much more.
That's how I met Sylvia Quiñones, a new arrival to Central Florida from Puerto Rico.
She was seeking last-minute help for Quiñones' three sons, Luis Pérez, 10; and twins Josué and Manuel, 9. The boys will be attending Windy Ridge Elementary School come Monday, the first day of school in Orange County.
"This is a big help to us, said Quiñones, a nurse. "We found a lot of information that we needed."
The thing that really caught her eye, though, was the free haircuts. Each son waited patiently in a stuffy portable classroom for the chance to get a new "look" before school started.
Most Central Florida parents probably know what to do or where to go for help in getting children ready for school. But not so for many newcomers, especially Hispanics, or those who are poor.
Were it not for such groups as Latino Leadership, many Hispanics would be lost. And it's not necessarily because the school system isn't trying to be helpful, but because some Hispanics don't feel comfortable approaching their schools.
Maybe it's because heavily accented English stands in the way. Maybe it's because the school system in the United States is much more decentralized than in Puerto Rico or Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries. Maybe it's because of others' tales of embarrassing encounters circulated through the Hispanic grapevine.
Whatever the reason, many Hispanic parents won't show up at the schoolhouse door. But hundreds like Quiñones turned out for the back-to-school fair, knowing they would get the help they needed and feel right at home while doing it.
Latino Leadership's back-to-school fairs were a big boost in getting many in the Hispanic community ready for school -- and no doubt lifted a great load from Orange County schools.
This nonprofit group is at the forefront of helping Central Florida Hispanics to acclimate, which is to say to get more involved in their children's education and in their communities. It has registered thousands of Hispanics to vote in the last year alone.
The organization skills of Latino Leadership are among the best I've seen in Central Florida. The Hispanic community -- heck, all communities -- needs more such groups that are willing to coordinate activities and events at the grass-roots level.
It takes money and selfless dedication, and -- face it -- few Hispanics can afford to do it. A big kudos goes to Marytza Sanz, head of Latino Leadership, for taking on the project.
Sanz didn't have much time to talk Saturday, as she zipped around in a golf cart from one tent to another. But when I saw her, she was beaming. And she asked, "¿Viste? ¿Te gusta?" Or, "Do you see? Do you like?"
Yes, I saw and I liked. But more important, so did hundreds of Hispanic parents and children, who now are better prepared for next week's first day of school.