Lakewood dignitaries say Latinos muy bien

STEPS meeting helps
Hispanics adapt,
learn their rights

Staff Writer

STEPS meeting helps
Hispanics adapt,
learn their rights
Staff Writer

JOYCE BLAY A large turnout greeted Ada Gonzalez (l) at the first meeting of STEPS En Espanol. Immigrants in the Lakewood community heard speakers talk about health care and workers’ rights.JOYCE BLAY A large turnout greeted Ada Gonzalez (l) at the first meeting of STEPS En Espanol. Immigrants in the Lakewood community heard speakers talk about health care and workers’ rights.

LAKEWOOD — Bienvenidos means "welcome" in Spanish, and that was exactly what Mayor Marta Harrison, state Sen. Robert W. Singer and Rabbi Moeshe Weisberg extended to Hispanic residents attending the first Spanish language meeting of STEPS.

Solutions To End Poverty Soon (STEPS) is a statewide organization addressing housing and employment issues. The president of the Lakewood branch of STEPS is Michael McNeil, a local resident. Both he and Ada Gonzalez, first vice chair for STEPS, created the Spanish language spin-off in order to meet that population’s needs.

"There are about 14,000 Spanish-speaking people in Lakewood," said Singer, who is also a member of the Township Committee. "That’s almost 20 percent of Lakewood, and it’s growing. And anyone who thinks they can ignore this community is stupid."

The overflow audience expressed their approval with applause. Their elation at hearing a member of the governing body acknowledge their increasing number and influence was reflected in the smiling faces in the room.

"We recognize that you are an important and growing (segment) of (our) citizens," said the mayor, who said she wanted to thank "El Presidente" McNeil for orchestrating the meeting in Spanish for the benefit of those who could not understand English.

"Learning English is the key to success," said Harrison, who described the benefits of the English as a Second Language (ESL) program to those at the meeting.

Weisberg, who is the director of the township’s ESL program, which is coordinated by Gonzalez, agreed with Harrison. However, he also shared a personal observation with the audience.

"It’s always been our feeling here in Lakewood that we’re all one big family," he said.

Weisberg told the crowd that more than 1,000 people have taken the program since Gonzalez proposed her idea for the ESL class to him two years ago. He said that 300 students in the current class were expected to graduate by the end of the year.

Ironically, the rabbi said he did not speak any Spanish, but said that might not be to his detriment.

"So we can learn Spanish the way you’re learning English," he said.

After his words were translated for the primarily Spanish-speaking audience, those in attendance applauded him enthusiastically.

The three English-speaking dignitaries provided a "thank you" of their own by presenting volunteer Alejandro Flores with a plaque for distinguished service.

"He’s an elderly man, but he’s strong!" Gonzalez said later. "I don’t pay him a penny and he doesn’t take anything for himself. He’s a very humble man, so this is our chance to acknowledge what he’s done for the community."

Several others answered questions posed by the audience.

Betty Rod, whose husband, Jorge Rod, publishes Latinos Unidos, a local Spanish-language newspaper, described for her listeners the services provided by the dental office where she is employed as a public relations representative and administrator: Liberty Dental Program of America, a discounted fee insurance program.

The five-office practice, Affiliated Dental Practices of Ocean and Monmouth Counties, is distinguished by both the fact that everyone working there speaks Spanish, said Rod, and that the office professionals are able to refer patients in need to organizations such as Head Start for complementary services.

"It’s not just a dental office, but a link for Spanish-speaking people to the services they need," Rod said.

Maria Guadalupe Rocco, a workers’ compensation lawyer with the firm of Dietrich and Dietrich of Trenton, answered questions relating to the workplace. She told her listeners the importance of reporting any adverse condition that risked their health to their supervisor, a doctor, or a lawyer such as herself.

She also stressed the importance of being paid for their services.

"Whether you work one day or one hour, the Department of Labor says you must be paid," Rocco said. "They don’t care if you are documented or not; you must be paid."

Those present who were illegal aliens unable to get a green card entitling them to work legally in the United States listened intently to her answers to their questions.

Finally, Dr. Stephen A. Traylor, an immigration lawyer practicing in Princeton, held the crowd rapt as he described his services and answered questions in heavily accented Spanish.

The audience clearly loved Traylor as well as the entire STEPS meeting, Gonzalez said later.

"The community knows that we’re on our side; they can sense that," she said. "I just want to orientate them on their rights. That’s why this monthly meeting will take place. (People want to know) what laws are coming down the pipeline and what to do when these laws come through."

However, some said it was not the issue of immigration or workers’ compensation law that was of most interest.

Maria Flores, 19, who is from Mexico, said she had been in Lakewood for the past nine weeks. Her hope was to learn English while staying there with family.

Augustin, 22, a cook, said information about medical services was most important to him. However, he also said he appreciated the visit made by both the mayor and the senator.

Carlos, 30, a computer operator from El Salvador, is a student in the ESL course provided by the township. He, too, cited the importance of health care information.

"You can’t work if you don’t have your health," he said.

Carlos said he had moved to Lakewood because he had an uncle who lived there. He said he liked living in Lakewood, but that he also had concerns for his safety there.

"I would like it better if there were fewer problems with crime," he said.

But Gaudencio Merino, 40, a Mexican granted amnesty in 1987 and who now owns a home and photography business in Lakewood, disagreed.

"I like living in Lakewood," he said. "I’m living nice here; I don’t have a bad experience."

For further information on the date and location of the next meeting of STEPS en Espanol, contact Gonzalez at (732) 995-6682.