Richland 2 program leader's goal: 'Make sure they have a better life'
Alma Puente-Ruiz scanned the church fellowship hall for the immigrant parents she had rescued from loneliness.
She pointed to one woman amid a throng of laughing, talkative women, then another, and another and another.
For Puente-Ruiz, a Richland 2 social worker, ending the isolation of parents new to America became a passion as she worked with families, first at the Department of Health and Environmental Control and then with the school district. Out of that passion and drive was born an adult-education program that teaches newly arrived immigrants how to navigate the language and the culture.
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"I really felt they wanted to do better for their kids, but they didn't know how to do better for them," Puente-Ruiz, 49, said.
She began the program while at DHEC with a $10,000 grant from Catholic Charities and brought the program with her to Richland 2, which now oversees it.
Three days a week, immigrants, primarily from Latin America but also from such far-flung places as Bulgaria, Saudi Arabia and France, meet at Windsor United Methodist Church for a program called Skills for Life and Work.
Cristina Martinez has served as coordinator for the past three years, making sure the adults are welcomed and assigned to the proper 2 1/2-hour sessions.
They learn English, graduating from basic introductory level to more advanced language skills. They learn American cultural traditions. They learn how to communicate with their children's teachers and with physicians and how to fill out paperwork.
"It's so good to feel confident to go to the doctor," said Sara Pena, a mother of four who has attended classes for nearly four years and is now fluent. "It was so disgusting to try and explain without words."
Last week, she and others gathered to celebrate Thanksgiving and help those even newer to South Carolina understand the traditions surrounding the holiday. They participated in skits, devised a quiz show with Thanksgiving questions and sang "God Bless America," a tune written by one of America's most famous immigrants, Irving Berlin.
"Do you think we can do it all in English?" Puente-Ruiz asked as she welcomed the crowd.
"Yes," they cheered.
The program, now in its sixth year, operates with paid and volunteer staff, said Sarah Sanchez, Richland 2's director of Learning Support Services and Prevention Programs, with funding cobbled together through federal Title 3 funds, the district's adult-education funding and in-kind contributions.
Windsor UMC provides the space for free, an outreach that fits into its mission, said the Rev. Tony Rowell.
Puente-Ruiz believes a parent who is confident and understands the language will be better able help their children succeed. So parents learn about school open houses, honors classes and special education programs.
"My thing is to make sure they have a better life, to improve them," Puente-Ruiz said. "I teach them how to do. I don't do it."
Her own life serves as an example. After growing up in an orphanage in Cuernavaca, Mexico, Puente-Ruiz arrived in South Carolina on a USC presidential scholarship in the mid-1980s. She obtained a bachelor's degree, then went on to earn a master's degree in social work in 1991.
As more and more people have arrived from her own country, setting off a national debate on illegal immigration, Puente-Ruiz said she has tried to steer clear of the political argument and does not dwell on the circumstances that brought families here.
Some of the adults who attend classes are well-established and on good financial footing; others are barely hanging on.
Aida Gonzalez, a mother of five special-needs children in Richland 2, found friendship when she began coming to the education classes, she said. "I needed her to get out," Puente-Ruiz confided, because she was shouldering so many responsibilities alone during the day.
It is the women and children still trapped in poverty, alone in run-down mobile homes while their husbands work long hours, who tug at her heart. "That is what made me start the program - the isolation of the trailer parks," Puente-Ruiz said.
"I concentrate on how I can help them and get their kids out of these places," said Puente-Ruiz, who has two children of her own. "I don't discuss politics. I don't discuss their legal issues.
"I see how I can help because I am in social work."
Richland 2 social worker Alma Puente-Ruiz believes immigrant parents can succeed if they follow these ideas:
1. Learn the language.
2. Get involved in the school. Volunteer if you can and talk to your children's teachers, even if it requires an interpreter.
3. Refrain from letting your children serve as translators. That shifts the power away from parents.