An infusion of funding is improving the lives of Spanish-speaking communities in southeast Colorado, connecting them to local CSU resources through the power of translation.

A portion of the three-year $8.58 million Rural Initiative funding approved by the CSU System Board of Governors in 2021 has been funneled into new and expanded programs in the Office of Engagement and Extension, while the office’s long-standing services, such as 4-H and horticulture programs, continue.

The Aging Mastery Program, which began in Sterling in 2021 through the Northeast Regional Engagement Center, teaches seniors how to live better longer. It’s now offered in Lamar, thanks to the Rural Initiative funding, teaching older adults about things such as medication management, hydration, exercise, and succession planning – all in Spanish, with content tailored to the specific needs of the community.

‘I love it’

“The one that I liked the most was the one where the topic was health, about illness,” Lamar participant Bola Berrera says through an interpreter. “And something that we Hispanics never think about is a will. I love it, because I leave fulfilled, very satisfied by what was talked about, and I can understand the topic one hundred percent.”

“If it was in English, I would not understand a lot, and for me, having a place like that where they teach us in Spanish, it interested me a lot,” adds Eva Morales. “My husband and I work a lot; we do not think about all of these details: writing a will, taking care of ourselves, eating healthy, a lot of things – we live far away, and we are isolated.”  

Instructor Claudia Coronado, a 2022 CSU Pueblo graduate, says the participants are learning about more than just aging.

“When I introduce myself and I say, yes, I graduated from CSU Pueblo, they are proud of having a Hispanic that graduated from a university and say, ‘Oh, well, if she did it, then my kids can do it. My grandkids can do it.’ So, I think it’s opening up their minds little by little.”

One of the leaders of the effort is Eric Ishiwata, associate professor of ethnic studies at CSU who serves as the Office of Engagement and Extension’s director of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Ishiwata has been focused on supporting immigrant, refugee, and asylum-seeking workers around Colorado for years. 

In Fort Morgan, for example, he began incorporating CSU students into intercultural community-building efforts almost a decade ago, supporting music festivals and community forums; a workshop on translation/interpretation, anti-bullying, and interpersonal relations; professional development training on diversity for Morgan County public school teachers and health care providers; and campus visits for Fort Morgan High School students.

Bridging gaps

During recent listening tours around the state, Ishiwata found gaps between Engagement and Extension staff and Spanish-speaking community members. The staffers wanted to increase access to their programs and diversify their participant pool, but they needed additional support. And while most community members hadn’t heard of Extension, they were interested in learning about nutrition, mental wellness, civic engagement, and opportunities for their kids.

“Those are exactly the kinds of programs that Extension offers,” Ishiwata says. “So, on the one hand, we had these specific resident groups saying they want the programming that Extension offers, but they didn’t know how to access it. And then at the same time we had Extension staff saying they were excited to figure out how to expand their outreach to underserved communities, but they were not quite sure how to do it. So, we just needed an opportunity to jump in and say now is the time to do it.”

It was fortuitous timing indeed.

“We were very fortunate to have an investment from the Board of Governors in these Rural Initiative funds for things like accessible education and health,” Ishiwata says. “This is right in line with the overall mission of CSU as a land-grant institution. So, instead of everybody kind of waiting for someone else to make things happen, the Rural Initiative gave us precisely what we needed to kick things off.”

He says organizers chose the southeast region of the state (Baca, Bent, Cheyenne, Crowley, Kiowa, Otero, and Prowers counties) as their first focus because that region had the greatest need and opportunities to expand outreach. 

Those are also some of the counties with the highest percentage of residents classified as Hispanic or Latino in the latest U.S. Census: 43.3% of the population in Otero, 40.4% in Prowers, and 33.2% in Crowley. For comparison, Census figures show 28.8% of Denver’s population identify as Hispanic or Latino, Colorado 22.5%, and the United States as a whole 19.1%.

Art and life skills

Marlena Griesse, 4-H youth development specialist for Crowley and Otero counties, launched an art program in January 2022 called “Perfectly Imperfect.” It was designed to introduce youth in the region to Latinx perspectives while also having them learn and practice design elements, color theory, and life skills. Throughout the lessons, as they create and fill their journals, youth discover their own unique identity and power as “artevists.” 

“I wanted to use this as an opportunity to lift up those voices and have these artists be able to tell their story, show how their identities are influencing their art, and help youth relate to that,” Griesse says. “The cool part of it is that this will be intergenerational. We’re hoping for youth and their parents or guardians to do the art projects, too, so they learn and talk and have these conversations together.”

Thanks to the Rural Initiative funding, Griesse is expanding the program to involve more youths and artists.

Food safety training

The funding has also benefited food service workers in restaurants, hospitals, schools, nursing homes, even food trucks. Many Spanish-speaking workers had been unable to attain required certification from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, until now.

Abby Weber, family and consumer science Extension specialist for the region, says she was able to offer food safety training in Spanish for the first time in June, and the local food service workforce is growing.

“For the past seven years, we’ve had request after request to offer our food safety training in Spanish or native languages,” Weber explains. “This funding and the Rural Initiative have gotten the ball rolling for that and allowed more people to participate. So, we have been able to make them compliant and employable in our own rural areas, which is a big deal.”

In addition, Weber runs the “Garden to Kitchen” program, now delivered in Spanish. It includes instruction in food preservation, food safety, and container gardening (growing herbs and vegetables in a small space year-round) to promote nutrition, sustainability, and a variety of ways to prepare dishes. 

More than 4-H

Brooke Matthew, Engagement and Extension’s southeast area director and an agricultural and natural resources specialist, says that historically, the perception in the region has been that Extension offered only 4-H.

“We’re trying to move past that and really educate people about the fact that we’re more than just the 4-H program,” says Matthew, who like Weber and Griesse is a master instructor. “We’re involved in development at all stages. It’s opening the door for us to be able to reach a different audience.”

Bruce Fickenscher, Engagement and Extension’s southern region director, praised Ishiwata’s work and expressed gratitude for the increased financial support.  

“I definitely want to thank the Board of Governors for this opportunity,” he said. “I hope they understand how much of an impact this has had not only on Extension, but also on the reputation and understanding of CSU, the land-grant mission, and connections with the rural counties.”

Building on a foundation

For Ishiwata, the effort is the continuation of an outreach journey stretching back to his early work in Fort Morgan.

“We’ve been building on the learnings we have gained from our community partners in Fort Morgan, extending them to Sterling and then Aurora for Aging Mastery, and now to the southeast region,” Ishiwata says. “So there has been a throughline of learning about how to build and maintain responsible community partnerships. I think this effort is fully living up to the spirit of the Rural Initiative funds by connecting rural Coloradans to education and health resources, and really eliminating whatever barriers might occur due to geographical isolation, language barriers, or distance to services.”

Weber agrees.

“In all of my years of service to Extension, I’m finally able to reach a population in my community that I’ve never been able to serve,” she says. “I know them. I interact with them, but I’ve never been able to educationally serve them through CSU Extension, and now I can. That’s pretty exciting.”

Mark Rose contributed to this article.