Diana Bernal-Canseco knows how good it felt to discover a community of other Spanish speakers through a Latinx youth group she attended during her junior and senior years at Ypsilanti Community High School (YCHS). So when she heard there was an opening for a job helping other Latinx students through a program called Buenos Vecinos (Spanish for Good Neighbors), she was excited to apply for it.
"I love helping them out. It has made me appreciate what I have and what I've learned," Bernal-Canseco says. "Some of them have really hard moments. Some of these kids have to work to support themselves and then come to school, and they're stronger than just about any typical teenager."
Buenos Vecinos spun out of the Washtenaw County Health Department's 2014 Encuesta Buenos Vecinos (Good Neighbors Survey), a poll of the local Latinx community. The program has grown steadily since then, providing both academic assistance and a supportive social network aimed at addressing the local Latinx community's top concerns.
Transformation from Latino health survey to youth program
The county conducts a Health Improvement Plan (HIP) Survey every five years, gathering input from more than 2,000 residents each time. However, for many years there was little to no data on Latinx residents.
"It was done over the phone, to landlines only, in English," says Buenos Vecinos co-founder Charo Ledon. "... If someone calls you on the phone and you don't quite know what they're saying, you're going to hang up. And a lot of people don't have landlines anymore."
A 2014 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grant allowed the health department to take a deeper dive into health issues and priorities for Latinx community members. For that year's HIP survey, Latinx interviewers conducted in-person surveys with Latinx residents and solicited their input through Facebook polls. The effort resulted in over 500 responses in which Latinx community members listed their top concerns.
Ledon became a co-principal investigator for the 2014 survey thanks to her previous work facilitating community conversations about public health for the county. While immigration was an overarching theme in the survey, Ledon says the community leadership team analyzing the data decided to focus on a specific list of issues and needs they could actually impact directly.
Top concerns included lack of dental and vision care, parents' involvement in children's education, depression, substance abuse, unwanted pregnancies, learning English, and healthy nutrition and exercise, Ledon says.
Ledon says these issues weren't being addressed largely because of a lack of time.
"People are not learning English, are not involved in their kids' education, aren't getting sufficient exercise, because many of them are working two or three jobs just to make ends meet," she says.
Ledon says it's much harder to get adults to "change their ways," and the team thought reaching out to youth might be a better way to reach local Latinx families.
"Instead of talking to parents about giving healthy food to their kids, we thought maybe we'd talk to the kids and have them demand healthier foods from their parents, sort of going about it in the opposite direction," she says.
"We have built a family here"
YCHS English Learning teacher Liz Sirman invited the community leadership team that was analyzing the HIP survey data to come work with the Latinx teens in her English as a Second Language class.
She says students were struggling emotionally as well as academically. In addition to the challenges of schoolwork, they had to adjust to socializing in a new school in a new language. In some cases, they were also getting to know family members they'd been separated from when parents immigrated years before they could bring their children to live with them in the U.S.
"That is one of the biggest struggles, being reunited with a parent where there might have been 12 or even 16 years of separation. They had to rebuild the relationship," Sirman says.
The teens' culture shock was compounded by having to leave behind the grandparents, aunts, and uncles who raised them in their countries of origin, often leading to anxiety and depression, Sirman says.
The survey's community leadership team began coming to the high school with no funding for the effort and no official programming. They mainly came to listen to the teens and find out what their concerns were.
"We were there to have conversations, not to tell them things, but to have them say what was going on with them," Ledon says. "We sort of picked up that they wanted help with homework, and wanted to have someone to talk to that was really curious about their situation."
She said some of the teens were suspicious at first, and couldn't believe that adults really wanted to know what they had to say. But over time, they established trust and rapport with the teens.
In 2015 Buenos Vecinos received a two-year capacity-building grant from the Washtenaw Coordinated Funders, creating a part-time position for Ledon and allowing her to hire Bernal-Canseco on a part-time basis as well. Buenos Vecinos also recently signed a memorandum of understanding to formalize its relationship with YCHS.
Early on, the team implemented the idea of reaching parents through their kids by doing 27 home visits where Buenos Vecinos team members demonstrated to teens how to make smoothies out of fruits and vegetables. They left a NutriBullet blender with each family, along with a book of recipes and a $10 token to be used at the local farmers market.
Most of the programming, though, takes place during the final hour of the school day, the credit recoupment period when students can work on whatever subjects they're behind on.
Buenos Vecinos staff work with students on a special social and emotional learning curriculum two or three days a week. They provide homework help and an open ear on other days, sometimes helped by interns from the University of Michigan.
Buenos Vecinos isn't all about academics, though. An underlying goal is building a social support network for the students, and it seems to be working. For instance, when the program first launched a few years ago, students from Guatemala would hang out with other students from the same region, and wouldn't talk to students from Mexico. However, that's not the case anymore.
"With the activities we do, I get to communicate with more of the other students, and became friends with a lot of other students," says Michelle Romero, a 16-year-old sophomore. She says she feels supported by her classmates and likes that they can "call on each other" for help.
Giselda Alvarado, a 15-year-old sophomore in the program, agrees.
"I felt like we have built a big family here," she says. "I feel like I can depend on the people in this program. If I don't have a way to get home, I could call on any of them, and they would help me in any way they could."
Anyone interested in learning more about Buenos Vecinos may reach out to Ledon at [email protected].
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at [email protected].
All photos by Doug Coombe.