At a Richmond elementary school, VCU students are helping to support immigrant students, families

Laura Choque, a student in the VCU School of Dentistry, speaking to a group of people in a classr...
Laura Choque, a student in the VCU School of Dentistry, describes in Spanish a variety of free and low-cost dental services available at VCU to J.L. Francis Elementary students and their families.

In the library of J.L. Francis Elementary School in South Richmond, VCU School of Dentistry student Laura Choque is telling dozens of students and their families — many of them recent immigrants to the United States — about the dental services available at Virginia Commonwealth University for little or no cost.

“We host events at the school that benefit kids but also parents. For example, we have this event called Give Kids a Smile where we treat children and we provide the services for free,” said Choque, who spoke to the families in Spanish. “It might be a cleaning or a filling, but we do it all for free.”

Choque’s presentation is part of a wider effort this fall by the School of World Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences, the School of Dentistry and the Center for Community Engagement and Impact at VCU to support the elementary school, which has a growing Hispanic population and that is nearly three-quarters economically disadvantaged.

Anita Nadal, an assistant professor of Spanish in the School of World Studies, is teaching a service-learning course in which six students are regularly volunteering at J.L. Francis to assist with schoolwork, serve as role models and provide support amid the social pressures and acculturation challenges experienced by children of immigrant families.

Anita Nadal.
Anita Nadal, an assistant professor of Spanish in the School of World Studies, is teaching a service-learning course in which VCU students are volunteering at J.L. Francis Elementary.

“I thought it would be a good idea to ‘adopt’ a [Richmond public] school this semester to see how we could help out,” Nadal said. Her course, “Spanish 322: Hispanic Immigrants in the U.S.,” aims to teach students about Hispanic/Latinx cultures, and help them develop an understanding of the differences and values in the community, as well as the life conditions, efforts, struggles and needs that affect the life of Hispanic immigrants in the U.S.

“I've been trying to help them to learn the alphabet and English sounds,” she said. “It's been a lot of fun. The kids are great. They’re so happy to have somebody speak a little Spanish to them, and to explain what’s going on with the alphabet and how Spanish and English are a little different.”

Wreskinski created a poster of the alphabet, illustrated with Spanish and English words, that can be taped to the boys’ desks for quick reference. “They don't necessarily have a lot of materials here for Spanish-speaking children, so I've been making my own,” she said.

Another student, Dominique Martinez, a senior homeland security major in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, has been working in a fifth-grade class and a kindergarten class, helping them learning English and math. Martinez is not fluent in Spanish, but is proficient enough that she has been able to work with the children.

“You don’t have to be that fluent in order to speak to the really, really small children. If they’ve recently started learning English, especially the kindergarteners and first-graders, you’re using basic vocabulary,” she said. “At higher grades, you might have to help ESL students with math, like long division and multiplication — that’s a little more rigorous.”

Nadal received a grant from VCU’s Service-Learning Program Office in August to support her students’ travel to and from J.L. Francis Elementary, and also to pay fees for the background check required of Richmond Public Schools volunteers.

The class’ service-learning work at J.L. Francis came about after Nadal was invited by Laura Middlebrooks, Ph.D., teaching assistant professor in the School of World Studies, to speak at the school’s career day in March.

Susie R. Goolsby, D.D.S., associate professor and director of student recruitment at the School of Dentistry, spread the word among dentistry students, helping to find Spanish-speaking dental students who would go to the school and talk about oral hygiene and give out toothbrushes and toothpaste.

Students from the Latin American Student Association at VCU also got involved, and are organizing an effort to collect clothing. The Barnes and Noble at VCU has donated bilingual books and School of World Studies students are holding a book drive for the school.

“Groups from all over campus have come together,” Nadal said. “I think that it shows our strong dedication and commitment to our community.”

Henry Jimenez, a VCU alumnus and the site coordinator for Communities in Schools at J.L. Francis Elementary who led the recent event for Spanish-speaking families, said the school greatly appreciates the time and enthusiasm of the VCU volunteers.

“They come with a willingness to help wherever is needed and that in itself is amazing,” he said. “Every day after volunteering, the students tell me about happy moments that they had during their time here at Francis and it warms my heart. The students enjoy having them in the school as well as the teachers and administrators.

“As a former Ram myself, I am excited to see fellow Rams give back to the community,” he added. “I look forward to continue working with these students and new students in the future.”

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