Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Apartment’s connections lead to learning

Silver Spring complex offers a variety of educational, health services thanks to partnerships

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Laurie DeWitt⁄The Gazette
In a Monday evening citizenship class at Pine Ridge Community Center, (from left) students Gudiel Perdomo, Jose Portillo, Nery Jeronimo, Felix Sanchez, Felipe Morales, Maruja Minda and Maria Amaya share a laugh over a name game they play while learning about the three branches of United States government.
Herminia Servat, 66, carefully pressed the ‘‘Control” and ‘‘P” keys on her computer Monday night, just as her instructor prompted, so a flier she had created would print.

The Silver Spring resident regularly goes to the Pine Ridge Community Center in her apartment complex to take advantage of the classes it offers. In addition to boosting her computer skills by learning how to use Microsoft Word and Excel, she also takes English classes.

‘‘I need to study English, and it’s good because the class is free, too,” she said.

The Pine Ridge Community Center, which recently celebrated its one-year anniversary, is located in the Pine Ridge Apartments on Piney Branch Road. The center is operated by immigrant advocacy group Casa of Maryland in partnership with the county’s Department of Housing and Community Affairs and the apartment’s management company, Kay Management.

The center also serves the residents in the nearby Good Acre and Flower Branch apartment complexes, also operated by Kay Management, said Brenda Voit, the center’s coordinator. It serves more than 300 families, most of whom are Hispanic and low-income. The neighborhood has the county’s highest concentration of non-English speaking residents, according to information from the county.

The center, open daily, offers a variety of courses, including citizenship classes, English classes, Spanish literacy classes and computer classes, Voit said. It has also partnered with NASA and the University of Maryland to offer science and nutrition courses, and refers residents to county services. In the past, it has also offered classes on issues like domestic violence, Voit said.

On Monday night, about a dozen adults prepared for their citizenship test. Volunteer Maria Sol Colina-Trujillo, an education and outreach specialist from NASA, moderated the class that evening and quizzed students on test material.

‘‘What do we do if no one obeys the law?” she asked the enthusiastic adults.

‘‘Enforce the law,” they responded as a group.

Felix Sanchez, 42, called out answers as Colina-Trujillo asked questions. Sanchez, a Bethesda resident, said he comes to the class two times a week. The center’s citizenship class is open to all residents, not just those who live in the immediate apartment complex.

‘‘I feel good about this place,” he said in Spanish, adding he is looking forward to taking his citizenship test after his classes finish in April. He said he hopes other residents take advantage of what the center has to offer.

‘‘They treat me good here,” Sanchez said.

Servat said she likes taking classes where she lives. It is important for her to learn English, she said, and the ability to do so nearby keeps her motivated.

‘‘We live in this country and we need to speak English if we want to be successful,” she said in Spanish. ‘‘It helps to have it here.”

She also likes that she can learn a variety of things right in her home, Servat said. She has also taken cooking classes.

Colina-Trujillo said she thinks residents benefit from taking classes at the center, and from participating in NASA-sponsored activities like the monthly bilingual Family Science Night held during the school year, where children and their parents work on science activities. In that case, she said, residents get to see that there are opportunities for Latinos in science.

‘‘They can speak science in Spanish,” she said, adding often children only talk about science in English, and parents may not talk about it at all. This way, she said, parents learn how to help their children with science homework and projects.

Voit would like to bring a mobile dental clinic to the center. An eye clinic already visits from time to time.

‘‘It’s more comfortable for them,” she said of the residents. ‘‘It’s like being in their home. ... And everything is low-cost.”

Voit also wants to provide English classes during the day. After doing outreach in the community, she realized there are many women who stay home during the day to care for small children. ‘‘Why not come to the center and learn something?” she said.