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STAFF SPOTLIGHT: Breaking Down Language Barriers at The Open Door

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Carolina, a food pantry assistant at The Open Door, knows first-hand how hard it can be for people learning English as a second language to navigate day-to-day life on Cape Ann. 

Born in the Dominican Republic, Carolina moved to the United States several years ago. She holds a bachelor's degree in Law, from Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo. She grew up speaking Spanish but was determined as an adult to learn English. She’d taken an intensive English language course before the move but needed help to get more comfortable speaking English. She dutifully took classes provided by Action, Inc., and today Carolina uses her multilingual talents to help other people. 

When clients find someone who can speak the same language, they feel more comfortable,” Carolina said. “And I know with a second language, it is sometimes hard and sometimes we are afraid to speak because we don’t know if we are saying the correct words or not. 

Language can be a serious barrier to access when it comes to food, but Carolina makes sure local people who speak Spanish and Portuguese get the food they need.  

She remembers one client, who was profoundly relieved to find a Spanish-speaking staff member who could help. 

“Thank God for The Open Door, and that they found someone who speaks Spanish,” the woman told Carolina. “Now I can get all the groceries I really need!’” 

Carolina takes care to make sure the clients she helps get everything they need and personalizes their experience. She asks for feedback on the previous week’s order, and if they need anything else or didn’t like anything. It’s those small touches that ensure families aren’t missing any of the resources available to them due to a language barrier, and are getting the nutrient-dense, delicious food they need and want.  

Reducing the language barrier for local people is imperative, particularly because statistics show Latinx households are disparately impacted by food insecurity in comparison to white households.  

According to Feeding America, Latinx communities were hit harder by the pandemic than white communities, and were 2.5 times MORE likely to experience food insecurity. Barriers to access including racism, language, education, and cultural barriers  that create inequities and exacerbate food insecurity for Latinx households. The 2020 U.S. Census found 1 in 6 Latinx people lives in poverty, and in contrast, just 1 in 16 white people do.  

“Being food insecure is a traumatic experience, and when someone comes to us and needs help getting food, a language barrier can be another roadblock,” President and CEO Julie LaFontaine said. “Feeding your family should not be stressful or difficult, and Carolina helps The Open Door create an environment where all are welcome, and all have the same experience getting the food they need.  While we’ve had some translation services, having that face-to-face support is a huge asset.” 

With Carolina on staff, and expanded translation services available by phone in more than 170 languages, plus digital translation support, access and equity are at the forefront of services at The Open Door. Carolina also has a message for anyone who is trying to learn English and/or isn’t a native speaker: don’t be afraid to try to speak, even if you make mistakes. 

When I came to the U.S., I felt the same way they feel, when no one speaks the same language. Don’t be afraid to speak, even when the other person does not understand you. Don’t be afraid, just go forward,” she said. 

She also emphasized that The Open Door has resources for anyone who needs help getting groceries and meals. All are welcome at The Open Door. 

Last year, The Open Door helped stabilize the lives of 8,516 people from 4,176 families with 1.83M pounds of food. We serve 1 in 6 Gloucester residents along with our neighbors in need from 9 surrounding towns in the North Shore.  

To request help from Carolina to place  a grocery order in Spanish or Portuguese, call The Open Door at 978-283-6776. Translation services are also available at that number in more than 170 languages.