Roberto Gonzalez Berdugo’s life was turned upside down when Hurricane Matthew hit North Carolina almost three years ago.

He had major damage to his home and his belongings.

But he was able to get food, financial help and even emotional support — and rebuild his life — because of the Wayne County Latino Council.

The council, which was formed in 2002, assists Spanish-speakers and encourages communication throughout the entire community.

THE COUNCIL’S BEGINNINGS

Wayne County Commissioner John Bell came up with the idea for the council while attending an out-of-state county commissioners convention.

“I got to talking with fellow commissioners from other places about their communities, the Latino population and what they were doing to make it convenient for them to access government,” Bell said. “I brought the idea of a Latino council back to my commissioners at that time. They adopted it, and put it into being.”

Bell said the Latino population was not communicating with the local community and also was not using some of the services county residents normally used.

“Communication — that’s what it’s all about,” he said. “It’s not just the Latino community going one way. It’s a help both ways. It’s a very, very good program, and the Latino community has accessed the needed things like how to get their lights turned on, doctors, access to the landfill and the health department and all that kind of stuff.”

Bell said the council also gives people in this county the opportunity to communicate with someone whom they don’t normally communicate.

Michelle Estrada, Wayne County Cooperative Extension family and consumer sciences agent, is chairwoman of the Latino Council. She said the council’s mission is to get the community and county agencies to come together to find resources in Spanish to be able to serve the area’s Latinos.

“Many families were going to these agencies, and they didn’t have interpreters like they have now,” she said. “And there was not a lot of literature in Spanish.”

Some of the agencies originally represented on the council were Duplin/Sampson Area Mental Health, Health Department, Department of Social Services, Cooperative Extension Service, Wayne County Public Library, Emergency Services and Partnership for Children.

COUNCIL IN ACTION

One of the first things the council did, back in 2003, was to create a Hispanic/Latino information center at the county library. It also did a needs assessment throughout the county in 2004.

In 2006, the council developed a community directory in Spanish because Latino families were looking for different resources and didn’t know where to go for services, Estrada said.

To make sure everyone understood the importance of Latino families in Wayne County, the council sponsored a 2007 Latino symposium, which addressed the economic impact of immigration. In 2009, another symposium sought to build Latino connections throughout the county.

Upon becoming chairwoman of the council in 2015, Estrada did another needs assessment.

“We found out that most of the families really wanted to learn about education, healthy living and safety,” she said. “So, in 2016, we hosted three different events on these topics.”

Two symposiums in 2018 focused on healthy living and finances.

“It’s important to learn about these things because we do things differently in our countries and when we moved here, we don’t know about the laws and regulations and can be lost,” Estrada said. “Having that information for them helps them understand.”

At these events, those participating receive handouts that members of the Latino Council have translated into Spanish.

Luis Cruz, co-chairman of the council, said that the council provides information to the Latino people in a language they understand and in a way they’re comfortable.

“A lot of times, we look at the reasons they don’t go to certain places for help, but over the years, they have become comfortable with us,” he said. “They can relate to us, they trust us.”

Council secretary Saralynn Flores-Vied said council members are trying to make the Latino population aware of all the agencies available in Wayne County.

“When we have a summit, we invite agencies from all over the county and they come out and talk about things they offer,” Flores-Vied said. “We translate that into Spanish for the participants.

“We try to make the population feel more comfortable. And the more comfortable, the more trusting, the more they realize it’s OK. Then, by forming bonds with those individuals on the council and knowing us, it almost makes it OK for them to ask a question. Whereas before with that language barrier, they just wouldn’t ask.”

MEETING NEEDS, BUILDING COMMUNITY

Flores-Vied said Latinos in the county make up a much underserved segment of the community.

“That population is perfectly content to hide under the radar,” she said. “They go to work, they do their job, they go to church, they go shopping. But they are perfectly content to not cause waves.

“Sometimes that can be a detriment because they don’t know about our laws, our requirements. Say there’s an issue at school with their child, they may not know how to address that issue. Or they may be fearful to address the issue. Or they may be fearful to address an issue at the DMV or with insurance or medical, any of those things.”

And it’s not just giving help to the Latino population. It’s also asking them for help when the need arises.

“When we need help from people, we can also call Latinos and they’ll be there to support this community,” Estrada said. “It goes both ways. It’s not just to help Latinos, but Latinos are very strong and they bring a completely different culture and they can also be part of the community and help to build this community.”

Cruz said, “We kind of bring them together. The council is helping cultures mesh.”

He said the council’s symposiums help empower the Latino community through education.

“We empower people to know what to do in certain situations, whether it’s mental health, a natural disaster or whatever,” Cruz said. “We’re not a direct service agency, but we know the services in our county and are able to connect them with whatever service they might need.”

He said the main reason the council was developed was to reach out and help the Spanish-speaking community in Wayne County.

“We don’t ask if they have documentation or a green card because we help everyone,” Cruz said.

“The council is needed here because we have a great presence of Latinos. We also have a great deal of farm workers and they’re Spanish-speaking. We have a variety of Spanish-speaking people from different countries, like Mexico and Guatemala.”

HELP DURING DISASTERS

Flores-Vied said during Hurricane Matthew almost three years ago is when the council realized just how much the Latino community didn’t know about disaster preparedness and what to do in a disaster.

“But it was a two-way street,” she said. “The local agencies had no idea of the impact that hurricane had on Latinos. It hit the south end of the county, which is where the majority of Latinos live.

“There was a huge impact, children not going to school anymore, families in homes that were flooded above their heads and completely displaced families. There was a lot of service that needed to be given to the Latino population during Hurricane Matthew that was not given.”

Flores-Vied said things changed last year during Hurricane Florence.

“There was a lot of translation and social media,” she said. “Documents were translated into Spanish and dispersed. There was more help. We had families that were completely displaced, and we were able to get them homes, clothing, food, shelter and health care because now not only were the agencies of Wayne County aware of this population, but also because the Latino population was aware of the agencies, and for the most part knew where to go for help. But we still have a lot of work to do.”

Maria Marroquin was one of the people who helped disperse information to the hurricane victims. She also helps get the word out as much as she can about the council and how it can help the Spanish-speaking community.

“The council is very much needed here,” she said. “I think it needs more spreading of the word to get it out there. Many people are still not aware of it. But being Hispanic and a Latino person of this community, I think it is very needed.”

Cruz said the council members have just created a Facebook page where they can send out disaster information to the Latino population.

“We have learned from past disasters that sometimes the word doesn’t get to the Latino population because of the language barrier,” he said.

FUTURE GOALS

Estrada said the council has three goals this year. One is to increase awareness of the resources that the Latino Council can offer — what the Latino community needs and also what Wayne County needs to know about the Latino community. The second is to keep the Spanish-speaking community informed during natural disasters. The third is to identify, recruit and train volunteers to support the Latino Council’s mission.

Cruz said the council also has some other projects in the making.

One of those is a symposium Aug. 16 at the Maxwell Center to educate families and help get them prepared for this year’s hurricane season. Local agencies that have a role during natural disasters will be on hand with a lot of information.

Estrada said, “We want people to know that, yes, we’re the Latino Council, but we serve the entire community.”