Mentorship merges culture, forges friendships

Photos by Brittney Lohmiller/The Herald
Amy Ruxer, left, worked with Reyna Miranda, both of Jasper, on English vocabulary May 7 at the La Casa de St. Joseph in Jasper. The pair met through the St. Joseph Parish Latino Mentorship Program and started working together in January of last year to help Miranda improve her English.


JASPER — Reyna Miranda and Amy Ruxer sat at a table in La Casa de St. Joseph at the back of the Portersville Road trailer park, with Miranda’s daughter, Katherine, 9, on hand in case the pair needed a translator. Despite coming from separate countries and cultures, the two talked like old friends.

Miranda and Ruxer met just over a year ago when they were paired together through St. Joseph Parish’s Latino Mentorship Program, which matches immigrants in the community with native mentors who can help them navigate their new country. In the program, mentors help immigrants and their families with myriad struggles including studying for the citizenship test, navigating the U.S. education system, applying for college and even just learning English. In fact, the program began a year ago because a group of immigrants wanted to learn English.

“We hear people say, ‘Well, if they’re here, they need to learn English,’” said Mike Hagerdon, outreach director at St. Joseph Parish. “They know that, but it’s not that easy.”

Amy, left, worked with Miranda on English vocabulary last Monday.

St. Joseph started the mentorship program to help the community’s immigrants transition into U.S. culture. The program is open to any immigrant or mentor, regardless of church affiliation, Hagerdon said. Although the program began as simple outreach, it has become a tool for integration and friendships. Often, the mentor pairs become friends, eventually reaching the point where they share photos of their children and grandchildren. To Hagerdon, it’s a beautiful thing.

“Humanity at its best is when we welcome and embrace everybody,” Hagerdon said. “Christianity at its best is when we welcome everybody.”

The relationship Miranda and Ruxer have forged is quintessential of what the mentorship program sets out to do. Miranda pursued the mentor program for two reasons. First, she was studying for her high school equivalency certificate and needed help with the vocabulary portion. Second, she wanted to improve her English. At the time, she had two children in school, but she struggled to communicate with their teachers because of the language barrier. She was also pregnant with her third child and wanted to be able to communicate with doctors on her own in the delivery room. As a school guidance counselor at White River Valley High School in Switz City, Ruxer was equipped to help.

Miranda and her husband, Carmen, immigrated to the U.S. from El Salvador in Central America in 2004 to flee the political unrest in the nation and to find a better life for their children. Since they already had extended family in the Dubois County area, they settled here. They haven’t been back to El Salvador since.

While Miranda has learned quite a bit of English in the decade since she arrived in the U.S., she lacks the proficiency of a native speaker.

“Learning the language is difficult,” Ruxer said.

Miranda agreed.

“I can follow short conversations,” she said. “Longer ones, no. They’re difficult.”

What started as a tutoring partnership quickly evolved into a friendship for Miranda and Ruxer. While reading comprehension and conversation practice are still a key part of their relationship, the two have also started sharing recipes to learn about each other’s cultures, and they invite each other to family functions. When Miranda’s youngest daughter, Jacqueline, was born seven months ago, for example, Ruxer and her husband, Jeff, attended the baptism.

“We were so fortunate to be part of that,” Ruxer said.

Miranda, left, and Ruxer chatted about slow cooker recipes at the Maple Grove Village last Monday afternoon.

The two women’s families have become friends as well. Jeff and Carmen plan to work in Jeff’s garden together this year, and the families also plan to get together for social events over the summer.

Ruxer feels as though she’s gotten as much out of the project as she’s put in, gaining a better understanding of the U.S. immigration system, Latino culture and why immigrants are leaving their native countries. She’s not the only one.

Amy Brosmer, a Stephen Minister at St. Joseph, jumped at the chance to be a mentor when the program launched about a year ago. Brosmer was matched with a woman around her age from Mexico who wanted to learn English. The two quickly discovered they had children the same age and both had teaching degrees, although Brosmer’s mentee couldn’t use her degree in the U.S. since it was from Mexico.

“She’s become a dear friend,” Brosmer said.

Like Ruxer, Brosmer said she’s learned a lot through participating in the program. The Latino community’s deep faith and their connection to their extended families impressed her. Most of their family activities, she said, revolve around the church. On Good Friday, for example, the Latino parishioners at St. Joseph gathered to re-enact the Passion of Christ. Brosmer and her husband attended.

“It was very moving,” Brosmer said. She wishes more of the Anglo parishioners would have attended.

Despite a large Latino population at St. Joseph — about 275 Latinos attend weekly — Brosmer said, the Latino and Anglo parishioners don’t interact often. Most of the Latino parishioners attend the Spanish language Mass, and the community is large enough to host their own church picnic. Brosmer hopes that the connections forged through the mentor program will encourage the two communities to interact more.

“We want them to bring their culture into ours,” she said.

Brosmer believes the two communities have a lot to learn from each other, and she admires the sacrifices the immigrants­ — especially the first generation — have made for their families. She sees some of her own family history mirrored in the lives of today’s immigrants.

“They have moved here just like our ancestors,” Brosmer said. “They want to give their kids a better life.”

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