This week's cover story gives one example of how life in the United States can be hard for undocumented Hispanics. Over in Levy, though, where the Hispanic population has spiked in recent years, there's a young Clinton School of Public Service grad working to make things a little better. Hallie Shoffner runs the non-profit Seis Puentes center on Camp Robinson Road.
The non-profit, originally known as Butterfly Ministries, was started at First United Methodist Church in North Little Rock in the 1990s to serve the needs of the African-American community there. "In 2007," Shoffner said, "they felt like the community had a sustainable program there, and the mayor [Patrick Hays] asked if Butterfly, which is what it was called then, would start serving the Latino community." The center was renamed Seis Puentes — which means "Six Bridges," a nod to both the bridges between North Little Rock and Little Rock, and the desire to build bridges between communities — in September 2011, one month after Shoffner was hired.
Situated in a nondescript strip mall space beside a Subway restaurant, Seis Puentes doesn't look like much from the outside. Inside, a large room is lined with new computers. Open since Feb. 1 of this year, the center serves about 50 students who come each week for night classes. Seis Puentes is funded by grants from the city of North Little Rock, the state, and donations by private and corporate donors. For the local Latino community, the skills taught there — English, GED preparation and basic computer skills — are the stuff American Dreams are made of.
"It's a community center," Shoffner said. "It's a place where we want the Latino community to feel comfortable coming and bringing their ideas. Any ideas they have to improve their community, they can come here and use our resources. They can use me to get in contact with the people they need."
Shoffner, 24, who graduated from the Clinton School last year, grew up on a farm in Newport. As a girl, she became interested in helping the Latino community after befriending the children of Mexican migrant workers. At Vanderbilt University, she majored in Spanish. While in college, a friend invited her on a trip to Calcutta, India. The experience, she said, "totally changed my life," and made her want to commit herself to public service. As a student at the Clinton School, she worked with the Latino community in Northeast Arkansas, teaching a youth program for Mexican-American kids at a church in her hometown, where she said she often saw police and others harass undocumented workers. After graduating from the Clinton School, Shoffner saw an ad searching for a director for a non-profit to help Latinos and applied.
In addition to classes, Shoffner said the center brings in guest speakers, including local political leaders, to help Hispanics feel part of the larger community. In some cases, she said, undocumented Hispanics don't even feel comfortable going to the public library, because they think of it as a government institution.
"They come to the United States and nobody makes an effort to tell them how systems work here ... these hidden codes that we automatically know and just assume they should follow when we make no effort to actually engage them in the process," Shoffner said. "That what we're doing here. We're trying to engage them in the process."
Shoffner said it took a lot of work to get the center open, but since February, things have gained momentum. The center is renting space at a local community garden, and Shoffner is thinking about securing a partnership with a law firm that could teach basic contract law to undocumented workers to help them avoid being scammed by unscrupulous contractors. The eventual goal, Shoffner said, is to turn over direction of the center to a few of those who have graduated from classes there.
Hugo Bran has been a student in the English courses at Seis Puentes for two months. Originally an accountant in Guatemala, Bran came to the United States in 1990 and has since secured legal residency. He's worked in restaurants, apartment maintenance and at a local Spanish-language newspaper, but he hopes a better grasp of English will help him finally realize his goals.
"Right now, I have two goals," he said. "The first one is I want to be a Spanish teacher. The second one is to try and work in my career. I am in accounting in my country ... I don't practice my career for 20-something years, but the numbers never change."
While Bran says that life is difficult and full of fear for undocumented Hispanics, he hopes others can follow his example and "don't make the same mistakes I did," like holding off on taking English classes for 20 years.
"Some people came in very bad condition to here," Bran said. "It's a sad story. But this [is the] American Dream — we are here. I am working on my dream."
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