Going Viral: ECVI’s Community Partnerships in the Age of COVID

Since Oberlin is a small college town, we sometimes forget that there are larger communities that surround our bubble. Lorain, with a population of 63,855 people, is a small city just 20 minutes away from campus. It is home to a vibrant community of Latinx folks who make up 30% of the city’s population. The Latinx community in Lorain has grown largely because of Operation Bootstrap, a U.S.-led postwar economic plan which recruited Puerto Rican laborers to work in Lorain’s steel mills. Upon arrival to Lorain, many of the migrants faced instances of housing discrimination and police brutality, measures which only increased as the immigrant population grew. These events highlighted the growing need for representation and increased social services for the immigrant community, leading to the 1974 creation of El Centro de Servicios Sociales. El Centro is a non-profit organization that offers comprehensive programming—ranging from case management and bilingual interpretation services, to financial literacy or GED classes, to mental health services—to best meet the needs of the Latinx community. 

Two Oberlin students, Jesus Martinez (‘19) and Sadie Keller (‘19), connected with El Centro in a private reading in which they created a citizenship curriculum for Lorain residents. This quickly grew into the El Centro Volunteer Initiative, which is now led by Samantha Perez (‘21), Belkis Moreno (‘22), Kaytlen Cruz (‘22), and Selene Pan (‘23). El Centro Volunteer Initiative (ECVI) uses community engagement to connect Oberlin students, faculty, and community members to Lorain County. Through one-on-one tutoring and relationship building, ECVI supports Lorain residents as they prepare to take the U.S. Citizenship Exam and enhance their English language skills. 

The Citizenship class covers the 100 questions in the Citizenship exam by splitting up sections and finding common themes and history throughout 10 weeks of classes. ECVI also offers English Communication Classes that help students better navigate interactions and conversations in the English language.  In place of  typical ESL classes, these are tailored to the students’ needs, and focus on confidence building. They aim to help students better navigate English interactions and conversations. 

ECVI also hosts fundraisers on campus to collect money for some of our low-income students to pay their Citizenship Exam fees. These fees rise every year, and most recently jumped from $725 to over $1000. Last spring, the fundraising group launched a very successful “Soylent Auction” as a collaboration with Jack Spector-Bishop (‘20)  from YeoPress. Oberlin artists and pottery co-op members donated their art for auction. At the end of the night, they raised a record number, over $1200. Aside from on campus fundraising, ECVI volunteers also partner with El Centro’s permanent staff to write grants.  In many ways, the grant writing team does the “behind the scenes” work of El Centro: by soliciting grants from external donors, grant writing provides the financial backbone that keeps El Centro running. These initiatives have all been led by Miriam Khanukaev (‘21), Lucy Baek (‘22), and Francisco Garcia (‘22). 

As ECVI grew in membership, club leaders felt that students would be better teachers if they understood the context surrounding the community that they were engaging with. Created a year ago by Zoe Kaplan (‘20) and Nina Harris (‘20), ECVI also offers an ExCo every semester. This ExCo focuses on the impact the student volunteer initiative has had on El Centro and is also part of a bigger conversation surrounding the history of Lorain in the context of immigration. The students are required to volunteer with ECVI by attending classes or assisting with advertisement, curriculum, or grant writing. Last semester, students created graphics that ECVI now uses as their logos. The class is currently being taught by Eva Hilton (‘21) and Francisco Garcia (‘22), and often features special guest speakers from Lorain.   

ECVI has a lot of different groups that all do very different things, so there’s room for everyone! Once you join ECVI, you are a part of the Lorain community. Last year, ECVI board members were invited to a community block party that represented El Centro among other organizations in Lorain. Participants got to mingle with community members, and enjoy yummy food, cultural performances, and a myriad of fun activities. At the end of each semester, El Centro has celebrations to congratulate students and volunteers for their contributions with food catered from local restaurants and a raffle with goodies. 

ECVI is one of many organizations on campus that has had to strategize on how to best navigate COVID-19. Group leaders decided that continuing to provide services to Lorain and collaborate with the wider community is all the more essential in light of the pandemic. While being online has presented some limitations, it has also provided opportunities: volunteers can still provide assistance through Zoom breakout sessions for one-on-one review and sessions are recordable. Thanks to our online integration, students who do not have access to transportation, and students not based in Lorain can attend our classes. Citizenship classes will be taught over Zoom every Saturday from 12:00pm-1:30pm led by our two teachers, Francisco Rojas (‘22) and Chris Schmucki (‘22). 

English classes, which are led by Kaytlen Cruz (‘22), Julia Klein (‘21), and Caroline Morehouse (‘23), usually occur on Saturday mornings for two hours. These sessions usually include large discussions with the class, fun games and scenarios, and one-on-one activities. Now, the classes are being tailored to fit individual students’ needs through one-on-one tutoring via Zoom. In the past week that they have been advertising their programs, they have garnered an all time high student enrollment rate. 

The partnership between El Centro and Oberlin college is a mutually valuable one. 

“El Centro and Oberlin College have a deep-rooted history of collaboration; however, the El Centro Volunteers Initiative (ECVI) has brought another layer of strategy and intentionality making sure that the services and programs developed have a sustainable plan. I personally appreciate the partnership with Oberlin College students and the level of professionalism, dedication, and enthusiasm the students bring to the collaboration” says Victor Leandry, Executive Director of El Centro Services de Sociales. 

If students would like to take part in this partnership, ECVI is always happy to accept more volunteers. Currently there is a need for more Grant Writing volunteers.  Anyone can join regardless of experience, hours are flexible, and commitment depends largely on the volunteers themselves. If you would like to be a part of ECVI, please reach out to: oberlinecvi@gmail.com, or fill out their volunteer interest form: tinyurl.com/ecvi-volunteer.