Ulster BOCES Student Uses His Language Skills to Help the Community

Ulster BOCES Student Uses His Language Skills to Help the Community

Juan Neri-Ramos isn’t quite sure he is making a big difference in his community, but he most certainly is. Every Sunday, he provides the vital service of language translation to customers of the Helping Hands Food Pantry at Saint James United Methodist Church in Kingston. “I get so much out of volunteering, that sometimes I think I am getting more out of it than the people we serve,” he says.

But Juan’s fluency in Spanish is crucial to the work of the church. At the pantry, he helps people fill out the basic information requested by an intake form so they can receive much-needed food and hygiene items. He also assists with determining their dietary needs, providing help on phone calls, and handing out food. Occasionally, he has even been called upon to help settle disputes.

Juan, who is from the Kingston City School District, is a third-year student attending the Hudson Valley Pathways Academy at Ulster BOCES. He is studying Network Administration and is also enrolled in the Cisco/Cyber Security program at the Career & Technical Center.

Juan remembers seeing his teacher, Dr. Kathy Landers, organizing food drives for local families at Thanksgiving, and seeing how her volunteering efforts pointed to a very real need in our communities. “I could see the importance of helping each other,” he says. “Dr. Landers strengthened my conviction to get out there and volunteer.”

Things really came together when Juan took a walk in his neighborhood and discovered Saint James Church, where the Helping Hands Pantry that Dr. Landers volunteers at is held every Sunday from 1-3 PM. He decided to walk in and “check it out,” and the rest, as they say, is history. He has been volunteering there ever since.

What makes Juan such a great language translator is that he learned the skill at an early age. Growing up speaking Spanish at home and English at school, he remembers helping his mother with everyday tasks that required translation skills. “Everything from doctor’s forms to paperwork and emails from school could be difficult,” he says, “so I would break it down into Spanish for her.”

When he is reminded what a valuable tool he is providing, Juan is modest. “Since I have worked there, I myself have changed positively in so many ways,” he says. “By having to talk to people, I have been able to combat my social anxiety and really connect with others.” He especially enjoys meeting and talking with children.

Some of the challenges he faces in translation include deciphering different dialects and understanding accents he isn’t used to. Though he admittedly speaks Spanish better than he is able to read it, he is sometimes required to interpret customers’ lists that are written in Spanish.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it presented an even more difficult situation for the pantry. Having to move the whole operation outside due to pandemic restrictions, this summer church volunteers worked tirelessly in extreme heat as more people than ever were requesting assistance. “There was a lot of running back and forth between the crowds outside and the supply area inside the church. It was a little crazy,” he remembers.

With Juan and only one other translator, Saint James was now helping not only people affected by the harsh economics of the pandemic but also many people whose native languages were unfamiliar to both translators. In addition, since many of the items that are donated to the food pantry are traditional American foods, recipients sometimes needed explanations of how to use them.

“It can be like playing a game of Pictionary,” Juan laughs. “Using gestures and drawing pictures is sometimes the only way to get an idea across.”

But even with these obstacles and distractions going on, Juan says he still benefited. “With all of this activity going on, I really was forced to learn to focus,” he explains. “I came away with valuable skills like organization and patience. And more confidence.”

Juan credits his time both at Ulster BOCES attending the Hudson Valley Pathways Academy (HVPA) and the Career & Technical Center for helping him to prepare and be ready to get involved in community projects such as the one at Helping Hands. “At BOCES, I have been able to work with real industry professionals, get real experience, and receive valuable feedback about my own thought processes. The project-minded approach of my classes is preparing me to tackle real-world problems with success,” he says.

In the 2019-2020 school year, Juan was also a member of SkillsUSA, a program led by Dr. Landers that brings students, teachers, and local communities together to ensure America has a skilled workforce. Before the pandemic, Dr. Landers brought students to the church pantry once a month to help with the huge monthly delivery the church received, and Juan was working on a team project about their work at the Helping Hands Pantry.

Juan says his experiences as a translator have not only given him practical work experience but so much more. “It not only looks good on a resume but gives the volunteers a deeper connection to the larger community, where like-minded individuals can collaborate positively again,” he says.

“I have learned that when we connect with others, we all become stronger,” he adds. “For me, I think this is just the beginning,”

Thank you, Juan, for making such a difference!

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