u ND and SMC
By ERIN LaRUFFA
Assistant News Editor
One year ago, a 2-and-a-half year old boy wandered away from his South Bend home, quite curious about the cars he saw whizzing by him.
He walked about three blocks before a woman found him standing near the side of the road. Because she spoke only English and he spoke only Spanish, she had to take him to the police station. Police officers were eventually able to find his parents — immigrants from Mexico who spoke no English. Authorities charged the parents with neglect and took the boy away from them.
The family was eventually able to regain custody of the child, in part through the help of Sara Haber.
Haber, a Cuban immigrant, has worked for over 30 years with Hispanics in the United States. Eight years ago, she founded El Buen Vecino, which means "The Good Neighbor." It is now located in its own building in South Bend and offers numerous programs to families in the area, including tutoring in English and assistance filling out job applications.
"I want to help our community to better the life of our families," said Haber. "El Buen Vecino is unique in the community because [it] is the only agency that assists the low income families — mostly Hispanics — that come to the community ... The family needs all the support [it] can get."
Haber runs much of the organization herself, but also relies on the assistance of student volunteers from Notre Dame and Saint Mary's.
Notre Dame junior Susan Palladino decided to serve at El Buen Vecino at the beginning of her sophomore year after spending time in Mexico. She has volunteered on a weekly basis ever since.
"The place is never boring - there's always something going on. It's always so busy that your head spins on some days," Palladino said.
At first, Palladino primarily tutored adults and played games with children. This year she is involved in program administration and grant writing. When she started volunteering at El Buen Vecino, she knew she wanted to be a business major but did not have a specific career goal. After working there, she decided to pursue management of non-profit organizations.
"I think working there really solidified my direction," Palladino said. "The non-profit world has a different pace than the business world. They're attuned into the community, where often times the business world falls short."
"Susan has been a daughter to me," Haber said. "It's amazing how she's helped me."
Other residents of Palladino's dorm, Howard Hall, often volunteer at the organization alongside her. Campus groups, such as Circle K, send volunteers every week. There is also one intern from Notre Dame who is earning credit for his work at El Buen Vecino, and two Saint Mary's students intern there for the work-study program.
"There are tons of opportunities for one-time service," Palladino said, adding that individuals or entire dorms can get involved without a weekly commitment.
Another junior, who asked that his name not be used, originally went to El Buen Vecino this year because he owed 40 hours of community service. Instead of fulfilling that obligation through unrelated, one-time only service projects, he completed all 40 hours at El Buen Vecino. After finishing his requirement, he still volunteers regularly there.
"I just got involved with it … I liked the organization, so I kept on going," he said.
There are also benefits for the volunteers themselves, according to Palladino.
Many students who serve as tutors at the organization are not fluent in Spanish but are able to practice speaking the language with members of the community who come to be tutored, Palladino said.
More volunteers would be beneficial to the organization as well, said Palladino, especially for a family-oriented program, Care for Our Children.
The program specifically aims to help families to deal with cultural issues and includes seminars for adult family members in areas such as health, child-development and the proper organization of a home.
"In order to live better you have to have that house organized … Everyone can live in a healthy [and safe] environment," Haber said.
It is important to include all members of the family — not just the parents of the children — in these seminars because Hispanics tend to live in extended family groups, according to Haber.
In addition to family-oriented seminars for adults, Care for Our Children offers family counseling and separate seminars for children dealing with issues such as sharing, discipline and helping with household chores.
El Buen Vecino began this program in 1998 after receiving a grant from the Indiana Children's Trust Fund, a division of Family and Social Services. The grant is funded from the sales of "Kids First" license plates.
"We are asking all the students … everybody from Notre Dame … to buy the plate," Haber said. "We need support from the staff, faculty and everyone who lives in Indiana."
As with all programs at El Buen Vecino, the families who participate in Care for our Children are not committed to attend all events related to the program.
"They are not obligated to come here. They come when they can, when they have time," Haber said.
All News Stories for Thursday, April 6, 2000