El Centro Volunteer Initiative Connects Oberlin Students with Lorain

July 24, 2019

Erin Ulrich ’18

Group of 11 ECVI student volunteers pose for picture.
El Centro Volunteer Initiative student volunteers.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Sadie Keller

El Centro Volunteer Initiative is a student-run program that connects Oberlin College students, faculty, and community members with Latinx residents in Lorain through community engagement.

Through El Centro Volunteer Initiative (ECVI), the Oberlin College community is participating in community engagement at El Centro , a community-based nonprofit organization in Lorain, Ohio. El Centro provides comprehensive services to Lorain’s Latinx population, including case management, youth leadership programs, and General Education Development (GED) and English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes. Lorain’s population is nearly 30 percent Latinx, the majority of which relocated to Northeast Ohio from Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Cuba following the start of World War II.  

Jesus Martinez ’19 and Sadie Keller ’19 coordinate the group, which has expanded from a small group of two or three students teaching citizenship classes in 2014, to a fully formed organization. ECVI, which officially began in fall 2018, has 35 volunteers, three working groups, and a full administrative board.

Martinez, an economics major and mathematics minor, got involved with El Centro during his second year at Oberlin through a private reading organized by Dyaami D’Orazio ’16. The class was paired with a volunteering component facilitated by a social worker at El Centro, in which students enrolled in the course tutored Lorain residents once per week.

But, Martinez says, it soon became clear that the need for support at El Centro exceeded the capabilities of only a few volunteers. Steps were taken in subsequent years to make the volunteer group sustainable.

In 2016, addressing the program’s need for cohesiveness, Obies for Undocumented Inclusion (OUI), a student organization of which Martinez was cochair, took the volunteer initiative at El Centro under its wing. Keller, a politics major, joined the group her sophomore year when Martinez was organizing the program primarily on his own.

It was clear to her that the program would need to be restructured and institutionalized to remain viable and expand its efforts in future years. In collaboration with OUI and El Centro, the two formed ECVI. Instead of reinventing the wheel, Keller says, they wanted to make ECVI “part of what Oberlin is already equipped to fund and support.”

Sadie Keller and Jesus Martinez
Jesus Martinez ’19 and Sadie Keller ’19
Photo courtesy of Sadie Keller

Through collaboration with Oberlin College faculty and academic departments, including Hispanic studies, politics, history, and comparative American studies, as well as the Bonner Center for Service and Learning, ECVI now has volunteers teaching citizenship and ESOL classes every week. Additionally, ECVI has three working groups focused on fundraising and grant writing, curriculum development, and general coordinating efforts that meet regularly.

The Bonner Center partnership now makes it possible for five Bonner Scholars to dedicate their full service site to El Centro.

By tapping into the college’s networks, ECVI provides a practicum component to students’ academic studies. “The great thing about ECVI is that we’re giving students at Oberlin the opportunity to engage in professional skills that they can use in other community organizations,” Keller says. “I think one of the biggest things that we’ve been able to do is get students connected who might not otherwise know how they can contribute.”

The Bonner Scholars connection is a direct effort to bring in students to El Centro whose lived experiences may resonate with Lorain residents. Bonners Scholars, he says, “are very much benefitting from the experience and are also giving back.”

Third-year Wren Fiocco, who coordinates the ESOL portion of the ECVI curriculum, says that the most impactful part of their experience has been the interpersonal aspects of the volunteering.

“I feel like I learn just as much as I teach, and the people who come to the classes are really incredible. I love working one-on-one with them,” Fiocco says. “We laugh a lot in class, and connecting with people has been super impactful for me.”

ECVI has grown exponentially within the past year, solidifying its plexus of support at Oberlin. In many ways, Keller says, “we’re building a plane as it’s taking off, and it's very exciting.”

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