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GARDEN CITY, Kan. – When Ruddy Yáñez and Alejandra Romero earn their degrees from Kansas State University later this school year, they’ll have a lot of young eyes watching them – from about 250 miles away.
The two soon-to-be graduates of Kansas State University spent the summer working as interns for K-State Research and Extension, putting together a pilot 4-H program for Hispanic families in southwest Kansas.
The program represents the first time that 4-H programming was offered exclusively to Hispanic families in the Garden City area, and southwest Kansas was an ideal choice. The U.S. Census Bureau recognizes Garden City as a ‘minority-majority’ city, with Hispanic, Somali, Burmese and Asian Americans accounting for nearly 60 percent of the approximately 27,000 residents.
The program’s goal was to have 30 kids participating in one bilingual 4-H club in Garden City; by summer’s end, Yáñez and Romero were leading 90 kids in four bilingual clubs in Garden City, Cimarron and Lakin.
And, there was a waiting list of more than 100 others wanting to join, too.
“I think the most successful thing that we accomplished this summer is we brought these families together and introduced them to a variety of activities, things they haven’t heard of before, and introduced them to this small community that we built little by little throughout this seven-week program,” said Romero, who will graduate from K-State in May with a degree in chemical engineering.
“When I leave, they will be able to stay and continue and get better. That only started because of this summer program.”
Yáñez and Romero are the first children from their families to attend college. Both have parents who are recent immigrants from Mexico. Spanish was the primary language spoken at home – much like the youth in the program.
“Working with youth is what I’ve always wanted to do, and especially to work with youth that I identify with as a Hispanic American,” said Yáñez, who will graduate in December with degrees in family studies and Spanish. “I hope that I’m a role model for them, and I hope they see that if I can succeed as a first generation college student, that they would want to continue their college education and (build) a career.
“Ultimately that was the big thing; you know, you guys can continue your education despite all these challenges, and being in this youth development program is great. I think it helped raise these kids’ confidence and showed them that these things are possible.”
The internship was paid for through K-State Research and Extension, but no other funding was available for staff. Yáñez and Romero were supervised by faculty members at K-State Research and Extension’s southwest area office, who helped make initial plans but then let the two interns drive the program.
Ultimately, they spawned two clubs in Garden City – the 4-H Tigers and 4-H Wildcats – and separate clubs in nearby Cimarron and Lakin. All four programs encouraged kids, siblings, parents and even grandparents to participate in activities.
“As Hispanics, it’s important to always have the whole family together,” Yáñez said. “When we recognized this is the audience we are going to target, bringing in the whole family was very important; not just the kids, but bring along the infants, the babies. Family is what brings our culture together, (so) for the success of the program, we (invited) the entire family.”
All of the kids in the program spoke English and Spanish well, but very few of the parents were fluent in both languages. Thus, Romero said, it was particularly important that she and Yáñez were bilingual.
“I feel like I have never felt so important in being bilingual until this program because whenever I am trying to explain something in English or in Spanish, I run into kids who prefer English, or they prefer Spanish,” she said. “So being able to speak both makes it really easy for me to communicate with the kids… and then explaining to the parents and communicating with them in Spanish.”
This fall, Yáñez and Romero have returned to the K-State campus in Manhattan to finish their studies. But they promise to keep watching and hoping that the momentum they built will continue.
“For the families, I want them to know that this is going to be a constant thing, that they can keep meeting, that they can keep doing these wonderful things, that there are going to be people here to help them,” Yáñez said. “For me, I want to be good to that promise and help these families continue. I can come back later and visit, see it prospering and say, ‘cool, I was part of this and now it’s such a big thing’. That’s the most important thing.”