Hispanic Initiative making good use of grant money

GREENVILLE — When the Sisters of Charity Foundation funded a $181,000 grant request from the Diocese of Charleston last year, its board of directors expected the money would be put to good use. They could not have expected the mileage the diocese has gotten from it.

The grant funded a program called The Hispanic Initiative, now approved by the foundation for a second year. The diocesan director of Hispanic Ministries said that gesture of approval was gratifying.

“This grant has a life of three years, and we’re pleased that the sisters approved us for the second. It’s encouraging to know we’re on the right track. When I see what we’ve accomplished in one year, it’s an ‘Oh, my’ moment,” said Kathleen Merritt.

The director said that most social problems with South Carolina Hispanics stem from poverty, so that has been the main thrust of the initiative. The “very good team” that manages the grant money – diocesan staffers Merritt, Mike Gocsik, Lisa Rawlins and Dorothy Grillo, under the overall supervision of the vicar general, Msgr. James Carter — has designed a three-part plan to address the needs of poor, Spanish-speaking aliens. That plan includes immigration, leadership development and resource information.

“We now offer more training and education to local Hispanics, especially out of the diocese, through our new immigration office in Charleston. And, since there are not a lot of youth programs for Hispanics, we work with SEPI (the Southeastern Pastoral Institute) to develop youth leadership classes,” Merritt said.

Over the past two summers, the Hispanic Initiative has sent young people and adults to Florida for training. SEPI instructors will be coming to South Carolina to conduct more of the same this year.

Recognizing that many migrant workers cannot get to classes because of transportation difficulties, the team has invested in English as a Second Language resources.

“These are user friendly things. It’s English in 10 minutes a day,” Merritt said. “And we also have produced a resource directory, based on an extensive survey of parishes done by Lisa Rawlins. Now Hispanics can see who offers Spanish-language or bilingual Masses and other services for them.”

A Florence parishioner named Mike Megg started a Spanish-speaking Boy Scout troop, and sacramental preparation programs in Spanish are funded by the grant.

“A lot of times they get lost in the rules and regulations. The idea is to make it easy for Hispanics to access the sacraments,” Merritt said.

Deacon Jorge V. Ramirez, one of three Hispanic deacons in the diocese, sees a great need for this kind of spiritual component to any program that seeks to help Hispanic Catholics.

“There’s a lot of need out there. We don’t have the money, that’s why other religious groups attract them. They load their vans at the camps and offer them programs,” Deacon Ramirez said.

The liaison for Hispanic Ministries said that initiative money has helped his office to provide for other social needs among the Hispanic community.

“We’re trying to provide what people need — help with medical needs, relief when someone dies — and we are trying to implement a program on domestic violence,” he said.

He blamed the growing domestic violence problem on alcohol abuse among Hispanic workers, especially the young, and is glad of the new program funded by the Hispanic Initiative. Merritt, a former private therapist, has high hopes for a condensed, five-week counseling program, paid for by the grant and piloted in Greenville’s Barrington Park Community, a virtual “Little Mexico.”

“We are taking a holistic approach,” she said, “since families are important to the Hispanic experience.”

The pièce de résistance of the initiative is a professionally designed quarterly newsletter, “Diocesis de Charleston Boletin Hispano.” It is translated into Spanish and bulk-mailed to area churches with a Hispanic population. The newsletter is a visible sign of the way the grant money from the Sisters of Charity is being used to provide realistic help to Spanish-speaking Catholics in South Carolina.