Sacred Heart Center educates Richmond’s Growing Hispanic Community

           Evelyn Reyes understands the lives of those that come to Sacred Heart to learn. Like the majority of students at the center, Reyes is Hispanic. Reyes’ mother also learned English to improve her children’s lives, like the students at the center.

            Reyes has been interning at the Sacred Heart Center in Southside for a month now. As program coordinator, her duties mostly include administrative work, but she also has a personal connection with those she helps register for classes at the center.

            Her mom emigrated from Guatemala in 1986 when she was pregnant with her first child. “…She realized that what she was making wasn’t enough for the baby, so she came over and started working here,” Reyes said. Her mom sent money back home to Guatemala and built a home for her family.

            Reyes’ mom did what was best for her family, similar to students at the center. “One of the questions on the registration is why do they want to come, and a lot of their reasoning is because they want to be able to communicate with their kids,” Reyes said.

            Reyes thinks that the center is very important for Richmond’s growing Hispanic population, because it gives them the opportunity to interact within the community. While at work, Reyes speaks Spanish, with the students.  “I have a lot of understanding of the people…I feel like I can relate a lot with them through my personal experience.”

            The Sacred Heart Center refocused its mission in 2011 due to the increased Hispanic population in Richmond. Since 2000, the Richmond Hispanic population has increased 95 percent, according to the Hispanic Liaison Office.

            The center offers economic initiatives, a food bank, a free mobile medical clinic, and counseling. However, the main focus is adult education.

             Program director, Mary Wickham, said the center offers classes in English as a second language, literacy classes for Spanish-speakers that can’t read the language, and GED classes in Spanish and English.

            “People want to be involved in the community. They want to better themselves; they want to better their families. It’s a very motivated group of people,” Wickham said about why students sign up for classes.

            Students learn about the center’s services through the Sacred Heart Parish. The center also has ads on Spanish-speaking radio stations. “It’s fairly easy to get the word out. There’s a powerful word of mouth aspect to it,” Wickham said.

            Maria, a student at Sacred Heart who’s originally from Mexico, has taken two classes since July. Maria is enrolled in English as a second language. Although she has lived in Richmond for 10 years, Maria is learning English for the first time.  

            “It’s very important that I speak English and understand too,” Maria said. She said that now she can communicate with others, like her neighbors.

            Samantha Boyer, a recent college graduate that has been volunteering for two months. Boyer said it’s a “welcoming center,” and the classes help students feel confident. “They’re very bright…they love being in the school environment. They have something to look forward to,” Boyer said.

            Retired teacher, Mary Ellen D’Agostino, has been teaching at the center for two years. She says her students are so dedicated that they remind her to give homework. The class only meets twice a week.

            D’Agostino said some students are afraid to practice their English. She said that the students that do practice English on their own tend to improve their language skills quicker.

             “The population is large enough that you can survive without knowing any English, but…it’s very hard to advance without that skill,” Wickham said, which is why the center is essential in helping Hispanics. The students want to learn though so they can improve their lives, and the lives of their children in the future.