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Publish Date: 3/6/2005

Meghan Hungate tutors Rosa Sandoval in English at Sandoval’s Longmont home Thursday. The two were set up through Intercambio de Comunidades, a program that provides volunteers to go to students’ homes to help them through one-on-one tutoring. Top: Jorge Santiago, executive director of El Centro Amistad in Boulder, speaks during an Intercambio meeting at the Longmont Senior Center on Tuesday.Times-Call/Erin McCracken

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At-home ESL program empowers Hispanics with skills, integration

LONGMONT — Rosa Sandoval of Longmont spoke about the differences between American and Mexican enchiladas as part of her homework assignment to use the phrases “can’t stand” and “in the mood for.”

After she enunciated words like “fry” instead of “fray” and “sour cream” instead of “sore cram,” a wide smile stretched across her face: The single mother of three was speaking English, and very well at that.

“I’m sure now about my pronunciation and that I understand more,” said Sandoval, who works at Whole Foods Market in Boulder. “It makes me feel good.”

Sandoval’s progress also makes her teacher, Meghan Hungate, feel good.

Hungate, 25, studies law at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and for the last year she has spent two hours a week conversing with Sandoval as a volunteer with Intercambio de Comunidades.

Founded informally four years ago, Intercambio de Comunidades focuses on reducing language and cultural barriers for Spanish speakers through in-home classes, public workshops and social events.

The program enlists the help of about 300 volunteers to serve 700 students, said executive director Lee Shainis, 27.

The service was started by Shainis and friend Shawn Camden, also 27, who both saw a need in Boulder County for a more proactive ESL service.

The pair began teaching informal ESL classes in the homes of area Hispanics. The program gained nonprofit status last year.

“What really was my passion, and still is my passion, is providing people with opportunities to better themselves,” Shainis said.

Intercambio teaches its ESL students vocabulary skills for specific situations — like communicating with a child’s teacher, applying for a job or asking health questions at a doctor’s appointment — rather than generic English-speaking skills. The informal one-on-one lessons cater to the individual needs of the Spanish speaker, Shainis said.

Sandoval said she preferred Intercambio because she “got more attention” and could concentrate on specific areas of vocabulary. She said she now uses English to speak with her manager and customers at work, as well as her doctor about medical issues.

The program also recognized that some native Spanish speakers might lack transportation, child care or enough money to enroll in traditional ESL classes.

Poor English skills can hamper a Hispanic’s ability to find work or better housing and can lead to misunderstandings with teachers and doctors.

“This is a culturally sensitive program focused on integration and not just the language skills,” Shainis said.

Intercambio offers social events and educational seminars, such as a recent workshop at which Jorge Santiago, executive director of El Centro Amistad in Boulder, spoke to about a dozen attendees about human rights, as well as immigrants’ rights — in Spanish.

The attendees — natives of Peru, Ecuador, Mexico and the United States — ranged from new immigrants to agency heads.

Maria Elena Rivera — a youth outreach advocate for Migrant Education of the St. Vrain Valley, a program that serves the educational, health, dental and community needs of local immigrants — attended the event to better serve her clients.

“We want to dispel the myths immigrants have or address any fears they have of being mistreated or being taken advantage of,” she said.

Santiago spoke about the 30 articles of human rights, as well as immigrant workers’ rights, such as getting paid for work they do, overtime and compensation if they are injured on the job.

Participant Iliona Gonzalez said she had been exploited in the past.

“I knew my rights had been violated, but my boss told me I had to work,” she recalled in Spanish, “because I knew there were many people waiting behind me to take my place.”

Santiago said immigrants, through learning English and knowing their rights, have the responsibility to stand up for themselves, their children and their community.

“It’s the power of one. The power is yours,” he said.

Shainis said that is the goal of Intercambio: empowering the Hispanic community through language, knowledge and accountability.

“This is a service, not a charity, for people,” Shainis said. “These are long-term skills that will help them for undoubtedly the rest of their lives.”

The program charges a one-time $20 administrative fee, but students can qualify for scholarships, Shainis said. The classes and seminars are free.

Intercambio also operates on pure volunteerism. Teachers don’t need to speak a lick of Spanish, but volunteers must complete a six-hour training course. Those with Spanish skills will train longer and work with those students who know little or no English, Shainis said.

Hungate knows how it feels to fumble words when learning a foreign language: The University of Colorado law student has a degree in Spanish and lived in Spain for six months.

She discovered Intercambio through a newspaper advertisement seeking volunteers.

“I wanted to get involved with something that was actually important,” she said. “For people to learn English, it’s more than about the language. It’s about integration; it’s about the community. It’s nice to help that process along. Also, we’ve become very good friends.”

Sandoval agreed: “She is my friend and my teacher. We have trust.”

For more information on how to enroll or to volunteer, call 303-996-0275.

Melanie M. Sidwell can be reached at 303-684-5274, or by e-mail at

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