Hispanic Heritage Month: The Importance of Bilingualism in Social Services

Debbie Almanzar

September 28, 2022

Hispanic Heritage Month is a time when we recognize and celebrate the many cultures, histories, and contributions of the American Latino community. At Family Promise, we are grateful for the many staff members and volunteers of Latino descent who contribute to our organization’s fight against family homelessness. We are especially appreciative of our Spanish-speaking staff members, as they provide an additional service that ultimately leads to more families becoming housed. In 2021, Affiliates served 2,817 individuals with Hispanic ethnicity in their shelter program. This is 19.9% of the total individuals served in shelter.

In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, we spoke with an influential Family Promise employee to gain insight into the importance bilingualism has in the social service sector.

On paper, Debbie Almanzar’s role at Family Promise Union County (FPUC) is Administrative Assistant, but her inadvertent duty as translator may be the most impactful to the organization. Almanzar is originally from the Dominican Republic and learned English as her second language when she came to the United States at the age of five. Almanzar later went on to attend Montclair State University and graduated with a degree in social work. Family Promise’s mission and goal of ending family homelessness drew her to apply for a job with FPUC, where she has been employed since November 2021. 

FPUC is located in Elizabeth, NJ, a city with a large Hispanic population. It wasn’t until one day when a Hispanic family dealing with a language barrier came into the office that FPUC Executive Director Geleen Donovan discovered Almanzar’s bilingualism could be of great use for the organization. 

“Geleen had asked if I could translate for the family and after that it kind of just took off,” Almanzar said. “Spanish-speaking families started coming into the office more often once I started translating.” 

After that, Almanzar continued to serve as a translator for Spanish-speaking families in need of Family Promise’s services. FPUC even added a Spanish option to their telephone line. Now, Almanzar gets calls all the time from Hispanic families asking for her assistance. Her role as a translator for FPUC has made families that may face a language barrier more comfortable seeking help knowing that someone is there to walk them through the process in their native language. 

Almanzar recalls one particular experience assisting a Spanish-speaking woman who was on the verge of losing her home. This mother of two children, one with a disability, had been struggling to make rent and, after reaching out to multiple other agencies, had not even received a returned phone call. Almanzar was the first person to call her back and helped the family get the assistance they needed. 

“Because of the help I offered as a translator, FPUC was able to help her and her landlord come up with a rental assistance agreement,” said Almanzar. “She was so grateful. That situation really left an impact on me and made me realize how important being bilingual is in our line of work.” 

There is no doubt that bilingualism is a crucial skill to have in social services. It helps develop an emotional connection with people from different backgrounds which can ultimately improve a social worker’s comprehensive social skills. As a social services employee in our diverse world, it can be challenging to build relationships with others that do not speak English. So, this Hispanic Heritage Month, Family Promise honors its bilingual staff members that are making a difference for countless Hispanic families every day.

By Kacie Ricciotti

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