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St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Phone Line Provides Help For People Who Speak Only Spanish

By Theresa Tighe Of The Post-Dispatch

February 23, 2004
Copyright ©2004 St. Louis Post-Dispatch. All rights reserved.

Up and down Cherokee Street from Jefferson Avenue to Nebraska Avenue, merchants say yes when asked to put up the Spanish help line poster.

The sign is written primarily in Spanish and offers aid for various problems. Many Hispanics, most of them Mexicans, live in the neighborhood and shop on those blocks on Cherokee Street. The shopkeepers are eager to help their customers. Many of those customers speak only Spanish.

Many of the business owners also are Hispanic immigrants. All the business people say putting up the poster is good for trade and good for the heart.

"It is very important, this line," says LeTicia Rivera, 54, one of the owners of El Chico Bakery. Rivera is from Mexico. Her Spanish is fluent, her English halting. With the help of relatives who speak more English than she, she makes her way in her new country. But she says she has friends who have been given help through Life Crisis Services.

The poster offers help to Spanish speakers in dealing with depression; addictions such as gambling, drugs and alcohol; anxiety; and with translation, to help pay bills and get medical assistance.

Life Crisis Services, based in Richmond Heights, is a branch of Provident Counseling, an agency that offers counseling at five centers in the St. Louis area. Spanish speakers are referred to agencies that have bilingual workers. Telephone counselors keep track of callers who are suicidal, battered or have other life-threatening conditions.

The Spanish help line fields about 3,600 calls a year. Life Crisis Services began the line four years ago to meet the needs of the growing number of Hispanics in the area. The International Institute of Metropolitan St. Louis, an agency that helps refugees and immigrants, estimates the number of Hispanics in the St. Louis area at roughly 40,000.

The director of Spanish services for Life Crisis, Jeanette Fonseca, estimates that if illegal immigrants were counted, that number could be as high as 100,000. The Hispanics come primarily from Mexico. But they also come from every country in Latin America, according to the International Institute.

Fonseca, 38, is originally from the Bronx. Her family is from Puerto Rico. Her Spanish and her English are rapid-fire, both with a tinge of a Bronx accent. She learned Spanish from her family. She mastered English in school and by watching the news on television.

"I am really empathetic," she said. "I used to have to translate for my mother as a child. These are very proud people. But they don't know how to speak English and advocate for themselves."

She goes on a poster-placement drive at least four times a month. Sometimes she goes to Cherokee Street and sometimes to St. Ann along St. Charles Rock Road. That area also has a large Hispanic population and welcomes the posters.

For now, the Spanish call-in service is open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week. The staff dreams of going 24 hours a day. Eleven Spanish speakers work the telephone lines. Four of the group are native speakers; the seven others learned the language in school. In addition to Fonseca, one other person is paid. The others are volunteers. The Missouri Foundation for Health underwrites the Spanish help line.

Sometimes when the help line workers answer the telephone, the situation is dire: Someone is considering suicide, has been abused or can't get medical aid.

But many times, the calls come from people who are just frustrated. A recorded message in English is more than many new English speakers can decipher.

Maria Romero, 34, works at Dinero A Mexico, a business on Cherokee Street that transfers money to Mexico from the United States. Romero has been in the United States for four years. Her English grows better with every day. When she arrived, she didn't understand many of her bills.

She said through Fonseca, "If the business doesn't have a translator, I call Life Crisis, and they help me."

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Life Crisis Help Lines

Provident Counseling's Life Crisis Help Lines offer two lines: the Spanish help line for Spanish speakers, open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week at 314-647-1150; and one for the general public, open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at 314-647-4357.

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