Out on a Mission: NAK volunteers at a center for the homeless

Driving eastward on Interstate 10 at 5 a.m., the most obvious thing I can see is the lack of traffic, but as I look closer, I see the change from the affluent Westside neighborhood around UCLA to the economically-ravaged downtown area known as Skid Row.

With fellow members of Nu Alpha Kappa (NAK), we’ve made our way to the Midnight Mission center, located in one of the city’s poorest areas. Even at this hour, people are starting to line up outside the center to receive breakfast.

Twelve of us come to help serve food and clean the center. As we make our way into the center, everyone is quiet and sleepy.

“It’s hard for a lot of us to get up at this time, but we know that it’s for a good cause so it makes it a lot easier,” said Adan Calzada, a fourth-year sociology student and NAK fraternity member.

To most NAK members, it is nothing new to volunteer at the center.  But some do not know what to expect for their first time in this part of town.

“A lot of [members] are not familiar with these parts of Los Angeles. As for me, I grew up in South Central Los Angeles,” said Jose Moran, a fourth-year sociology student and member of the fraternity.

As we first walk in, I notice young kids, the youngest looking like he is three years old. At first, the children stay close to their parents, but after a while, they start playing around with fraternity members, and their smiles light up the fraternity members’ faces.

“The hardest part of coming here is always seeing how many kids live in these conditions… we try to interact with the kids because they are the future of this country. When people think of homeless individuals, they never realize that there are many children that are homeless as well,” said Moran.

The homeless thank the members as they serve food.

“There is no greater feeling than when people thank you and how you can really see it in their faces how much this really means to them,” said Victor Chan, a fourth-year biology student and first-time volunteer at the center.

After the food is served, it is time to clean. The members are now livelier than they were when they first arrived. They talk and make jokes not just with each other, but with the leaders at the center as they sweep, mop and wash the center, making sure that it will be clean for lunch.

But a difficult issue for NAK members is that they are not able to do more for the people on Skid Row. Many times they feel that they have to turn their backs on the individuals in need.

“It’s great how we come out and give three to four hours of our time, but the most important thing we can do is not forget when we go back to UCLA,” said Moran.

Can you read this?

Imagine how it would feel if the writing on street signs and businesses was indecipherable. This is a reality for over 200,000 Spanish-speaking immigrants in Los Angeles County alone, and an estimated 2 million people nationwide.

At Centro Latino for Literacy, staff and volunteers help Latino immigrants gain basic literacy in Spanish with the goal of preparing students for English as a Second Language (ESL) classes. Founded in 1991, Centro Latino has helped over 7,000 low-income Latinos read and write in Spanish, as well as gain functional literacy in areas like math, computers, finances, and health. Despite pressure to immediately teach immigrants to read and write in English, literacy in one’s native language facilitates a stronger cognitive foundation, making it considerably easier to transfer reading and writing skills to a second language. As a result, teaching native Spanish speakers how to read and write in their own language is a vital step for ESL programs.

Centro Latino's Leamos class works with Maestra Teresa to parse syllables

Writing one’s name is a crucial skill many of Centro Latino’s students did not have the opportunity to learn in their country of birth. The beginning course, Leamos (‘let’s read’), starts by teaching students to first recognize and write individual letters, then syllables, and eventually read words and sentences. Using an internet-based program, each student moves at his/her own pace following audio instructions. Key words frame each lesson, starting with “educación,” a witty example of all five vowels in one word. It takes about 100-120 hours to complete the 43-lesson curriculum in Leamos, both a rapid and impressive feat. Once students graduate from Leamos, they enter the Funcional class where they learn basic functional literacy, and finally progress to ESL classes.

In 2008 Centro Latino launched “10×10,” a campaign to reach 10,000 people by the end of 2010. Since many are unable to reach the Pico-Union headquarters, the campaign aims to bring the literacy program to the people, raising program awareness and launching new school sites in classrooms ranging from Van Nuys to Long Beach. With the widespread access of the internet, Leamos has even expanded to parts of Mexico.

Centro's Funcional class transcribes Maestro Jorge's words and sentences

Centro Latino is not just a place to learn literacy, but a place to develop personal confidence and self-esteem. The school takes pride in its community atmosphere and its graduates often return as volunteers and mentors. Through the program, students learn to acknowledge their role as leaders in the community. “They don’t see themselves as teachers, but they’re already leaders in their households,” says Veronica Flores, Centro Latino’s Programs & Community Engagement Manager. “I don’t like to use the word empower,” Flores explains, “they have it all themselves. Our hope is that by teaching them to read and write they can uplift themselves.”

And they have. Born in Honduras and an immigrant of over 30 years, Mercedes Meza picked up English working as a housecleaner, but was unable to read and write in Spanish until her graduation from Centro Latino. A poster-child for Centro Latino, she proclaims, “Today I feel stronger than ever before.”

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