Working with the Latino Community in Saint Louis

In 1997, Virginia Braxs, Professor of Romance Language & Literature at Washington University, began integrating four hours of community service into her language courses. The students had such positive experiences, she encouraged a colleague to do the same. By 2000, they started working in partnership, providing volunteers majoring in Spanish to help in an after-school program to provide tutoring. Accion Social Communitaria evolved from a tutoring program into an equally important mentoring program.

The program serves 30 youth with group activities like mentored discussions of various topics and activities addressing teen issues, health and wellness. The goals of this program include motivating kids to stay in school, developing self-esteem and self-respect, and encouraging them to have high hopes, dreams and goals.

The program "provides a structure for them, successful Hispanic student role models. The experiences are widening their world, opening their minds, celebrating their lives, " says Braxs.

Partnership has been the key to success and overcoming various obstacles. "The more we empower people, the more successful the program is." Hispanic students have stayed in the program, improved academically, and have started talking about going to college.

The next step on the ladder of success is the development of the Open Door to College program in conjunction with Catholic Family Services. This will include financial aid preparation, college application assistance, SAT preparation, and trips to local colleges for 10th-12th graders. Braxs says, "we really can make a difference changing one life at a time."

"My involvement with the Hispanic community of St. Louis includes two folds, one is through the outreach programs that I created, and currently mentor, with the support of the Washington University's Romance Languages & Literatures Department 9 years ago, and the other is my personal participation in community service and cultural organizations that promote the excellence of the Hispanic culture. In 1997 we started three after school programs (Niños, Cambios & Puertas Programs) at the Spanish section of the Romance Languages & Literatures Department, involving our majors and minors in Spanish with the Hispanic community, so they could practice their Spanish language skills and at the same time serve their community. Our volunteers go twice a day to non profit agencies serving the Hispanics to tutor and mentor underprivileged Hispanic kids. The programs have been growing and are very successful, and a year ago Niños and Cambios Programs became part of the Student Union Programs. We have between 40 and 45 tutors per semester. We have another program, La Clínica Program, for advanced Spanish speakers where students do simultaneous translation at the free Hispanic clinic in South St. Louis. Since 1996 I am the Vice President of the Hispanic Arts Council which brings Hispanic artists to St. Louis, like Cuban musician Compay Segundo (Buena Vista Social Club), Inti Illimani Andean Group from Chile, Luciana Souza from Brasil, and this year Mexican singer and composer Lila Downs. The Hispanic Arts Council sponsors Hispanic artists 'exhibits and cultural activities with schools in the area'."