Students in the Al Éxito program that helps ease the transition from middle to high school.

In less than a year, Laura Espinoza has started five educational programs in her small town of Perry, Iowa (pop 7,700) — all as a volunteer. This is brand new territory for Laura, who was inspired to take action by a leadership class and soon unleashed a wave of pent-up demand for programs targeted to Latino children (Perry is about 40% Hispanic/Latino). Laura talked to the Yonder about her own struggles adjusting to the U.S. as a child, the Latino/Anglo dynamic in Perry, and how she manages to make youth empowerment look easy.

You started five educational programs in about as many months. How did that happen?

I was taking a class called Latina Leadership Initiative — that class is all about empowerment. When I saw that I had access to these programs to bring them to Perry, I kind of let go of [my] shyness and said – this is something I need to do.

We got Everybody Wins going, a national reading program for elementary children. Right before that, we created Be Our Guest – [leaders] from our community would come in and talk [to elementary kids]. After that I re-started [the Perry chapter of] Al Éxito, a program to make it easier for middle schoolers to transition to high school. Juntos is [a program] for the parents: we talk about college, how to support their kids. Now we are trying to take the kids from Al Éxito to be our 4-H youth group.

All these opportunities just sort of came to me. It’s been really easy so far actually. I started with Everybody Wins and that allowed me to know about other programs. Everything else just kind of fell in my lap. A lot of people [came to me and] said, “Can you help us?”

Had you ever done anything like this before? Or did you just see a need and go for it?

No. This is all kind of new.

It always comes back to the struggles I had. I was 7 years old when we came to the U.S. I had struggles with the language. And I see those struggles with these kids, and it motivates me. Having two languages – it’s kind of stressful. I wanted to do a program that would help them.

Laura Espinoza, second-from-right, with friends.

That’s a lot of work to put on one person though – especially when it’s all new to you. Do you think there was a pent up demand for leadership that wasn’t being met?

Unfortunately, yes. [My leadership class] was so eye-opening to me and people saw that motivation and said, “We need to get her to do this.” I don’t mind. This really brings joy to me.

It’s really hard to get other people to [volunteer] because they say – you know, I have a family. Younger woman are having kids at a very early time. They’re busy. I’m lucky to have the time. I have three kids: two in elementary and one is 4. It can get hectic. My mother helps me a lot, my siblings and my husband.

I don’t want to be the only one trying to motivate these kids. I would like to see a group of us doing that.

A couple of these programs were started in urban areas like Des Moines – did you have to adapt?

That was one of my concerns. These programs are run in Des Moines [the state’s largest city, located about a half hour to the southeast of Perry] – the schools are bigger, the city is bigger. But [the director of Al Éxito] said, whatever you want to change in the curriculum, to make it better for your kids, that works for us.

What’s an example of something you had to adapt to the small-town environment?

One of the biggest parts – the Des Moines kids are a lot closer to the colleges. The fact that I had to take kids into Des Moines, the parents were a little concerned about that. So what we had to do was just research the schools and then have students or graduates who have gone to those colleges come into the class and talk to them about the school.

Speaking of adapting things to a small-town: what is the dynamic in Perry with relation to the influx of Latino residents these past few decades? Do you feel it’s largely viewed as a positive now?

I think so. When I first came to Perry, I think there were five Hispanic students. It was really, really hard when you first come in from Mexico and you’re not used to the school, the language. The whole environment was very different and very intimidating.

We still get kids from Central America, and they don’t speak the language. But it’s easier for them now because you have all these other generations that have been here. Even for the parents, they don’t have to scratch their head and wonder: what am I supposed to do?

Whereas before you were afraid to get involved. Now we’re not. We’re very mixed. The English speaking community [is] very welcoming, and before it was different. They were not used to seeing us, they were not used to change. It could get a little rough. And I don’t feel like that’s a problem anymore. Now you kind of come to Perry and get involved right away.

Why do you think the environment changed so much?

The Hispanic community grew. Oh, now there’s 10 of us. Now there’s 30 of us. The more it grew, the more Perry allowed us to bring in some of our customs. Not just with our festivities and not just food, but they allowed us to be us here. Thanks to that, all these other people they started seeing – they’re accepting us. We can go out. We can be part of Perry.

You’re also leading some of those “festivities” you mention. Can you tell me more about those? Do you have a mix of both Latino and Anglo residents attending things like that?

I’ve been helping with the Latino festival for many years. The festival is for everyone – our local businesses, our fire department, and the mayor are all part of the festival. I wanted to make sure that when we are celebrating, everyone in our community [is] part of it, or at least enjoy every minute of it. It’s every year. But we have added [a] Mother’s Day celebration, [and this year was] our first Father’s Day celebration.

I help organize other festivities where our dance group performs throughout the year. Our dance group is folklore dances mainly but [we] have added some modern dances. It’s been a slow process, but it’s becoming a better known activity.

Working with children so much, you probably naturally have an eye on the future of the community. What is your vision? If you think about Perry in 15 years, what do you hope is different? The same?

One of the things that I really, really hope for is that more Latinos are graduating from school. That more Latinos are pursuing a higher education, that they have more ideas of what they want to do with their lives. I would like to see less and less that minorities are in need of extra help when it comes to [education].

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