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WI: Need grows for bilingual services in Sauk County

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Two-year-old Valeria Ruiz came down with a fever Sunday.

Her mother tried to cool her down in the bath tub and gave her some Tylenol. But nothing worked.

"Since the fever continued, I knew I had to come here," said the girl’s mother, 31-year-old Paulina Ruiz.

Ruiz spoke through an interpreter Friday at the Medical Associates of Baraboo clinic, where her daughter had returned for a routine checkup. The clinic hired an interpreter to help Ruiz through the process.

Ruiz came to the United States from Mexico in 2006 to work, and says she sends a portion of each paycheck back to her parents "to help them have a better life."

A recent report from the Sauk County Council on Collaborative Initiatives says a greater need for language services in this area is emerging.

"The numbers in Sauk County are still relatively low but given current population trends, this is something we should pay attention to and plan for," said CCI Co-Chair Judy Spring, who compiled the report after a series of meetings with CCI members.

The CCI group is a collection of government agencies and other "safety net" organizations.

The number of Spanish speaking students who speak limited English in the Baraboo School District grew from 6 in 2002 to 60 in 2008, according to the state’s Department of Public Instruction.

"It’s been a huge increase," said District Administrator Crystal Ritzenthaler. "When we started with about five (Spanish speaking) students, we really had no additional services for them."

Today the district employs two bilingual teachers at more than $145,000 per year, and gets some grant funding for its language programs.

Because of Sauk County’s status as a regional tourism destination, thousands of seasonal visitors and service workers who don’t speak English flock to the area each year. And that places a burden on service providers, like hospitals and law enforcement agencies.

They deal with language barriers in a variety of ways, the CCI report says, including the use of bilingual family members and friends, a telephone language line, and independent interpreters. But gaps in language access still exist.

The report says there is confusion and misunderstandings about service eligibility among non-English speakers in Sauk County. And getting in touch with those people — many who might benefit from the services — is difficult for providers.

"When we compiled a list of all the creative things agencies are currently doing to get by, we also found some opportunities for increased coordination," Spring said. "For example, each agency keeps its own list of interpreters. There is no method for keeping a coordinated, up-to-date list. There is also no coordinated, standardized data collection, which makes it difficult to anticipate how to meet the increasing need for interpreters efficiently."

Sauk County’s Public Health Department utilizes interpreters almost daily, said Cindy Bodendein, the department’s director. But she said sharing interpreters between agencies might pose difficulties, because many interpreters specialize in one area of service, such as law or medicine.

"It becomes an issue of expertise and if they can work in multiple areas," Bodendein said.

The CCI report says young people who are bilingual should know that there is a "growing career market" for certified interpreters.

Truxie Boyce, a local Spanish interpreter, said she has no shortage of clients.

When Boyce started working for the public health department 10 years ago, she didn’t see much action, she said.

Boyce now works with multiple local agencies and organizations, and her services are in high demand, she said. Boyce sees a growing need for Spanish speaking interpreters in Sauk County, and she tries to encourage bilingual people to volunteer with hospitals and service agencies.

Many of Boyce’s clients want to learn English, she says, but they find it difficult because "people think and feel in their native language."

"I’ve never shadowed a person in that position all day long, but I can’t imagine how hard it must be," Boyce said. "Even things like moving into an apartment and dealing with your landlord ... Just common things that we take for granted in our every day life must be very difficult."

For Ruiz, the obstacle to learning English isn’t motivation, but opportunity. Between working and raising a daughter, she struggles to find the time for courses and tutors, she said.

But if she decided to learn, she might have a tough time finding help through teaching organizations, like the Baraboo Area Literacy Council.

The BALC began as an organization that taught illiterate people how to read, but has undergone a transformation in recent years.

"We’ve found that in the last several years that the call has been from foreign speakers that live in this area and want to improve their English," said Nijole Etzwiler, BALC’s Vice President.

The organization currently has 10 volunteer tutors each working with anywhere from two to five students, and is in desperate need of more tutors, Etzwiler said.

As an alternative method to provide the service, BALC is trying to get grant money that would purchase a computer learning program that non-English speakers could use at the Baraboo Public Library.

Those who want to learn English submit requests at the library, but Etzwiler said BALC doesn’t have the staff to accept every student.

"I have to call many of them back and say, ‘I’m sorry, we’re putting you on a waiting list,’" she said.


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