MILBRIDGE, Maine — Habla usted espanol?
For most Milbridge residents — and most residents of Washington County — the answer to that question, “Do you speak Spanish?,” would be “No.”
Maine is America’s “whitest state,” in terms of having the least ethnic diversity of any state. And Washington County is among the least diverse of Maine’s 16 counties, with more than 92 percent of residents being Caucasian and most minorities being Native Americans. Nonetheless, there’s a growing Hispanic population in Milbridge and other Washington County communities, as families that were once in the migrant worker stream continue to put down year-round roots Down East.
“We recently did a needs assessment, and we found that during the dead of winter there were 85 [Hispanic] families that included 285 individuals living in this region year-round, the majority in Milbridge,” said Ian Yaffe, executive director of the Milbridge-based Mano en Mano, “hand in hand,” organization.
Mano en Mano has spent the last 20 years advocating for the Hispanic community in Milbridge and beyond. The nonprofit’s current staff of eight works to help Down East’s growing number of Hispanic residents become more connected with the Anglo communities in which they live, offering English language classes as well as Spanish language classes as one means of integrating the two cultures.
“While there are plenty of individuals who may have issues with the immigrant community getting settled here, generally the communities we work with have been welcoming beyond what we would expect,” Yaffe said. “And a lot of people are neutral about it. We’re trying to work on community integration, not in terms of being seen as a place that helps Latinos, but as a community learning center that helps all of Milbridge. We have events that, in effect, have [Spanish] subtitles and others that have English subtitles. It’s just about helping families succeed.”
The potential for success of six such families is grounded in their homes within the Hand in Hand Apartments located in Milbridge at 173 Wyman Road. Built at an under-budget cost of $1.3 million with the help of a low-interest loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the once-controversial public-assisted housing project opened in July 2011. It includes three-bedroom and two-bedroom apartments — three of each. Three of the families now living there are Hispanic. Two are of mixed race. One family is white. All six families have children.
“The controversy that happened was a misunderstanding and an unfortunate episode,” Yaffe says in hindsight. “It was based on confusion about who is eligible to live there, concern about what would happen to property taxes, and confusion about what kind of zoning regulations were involved. We’ve since seen the building do exactly what it was supposed to do, which is meeting the immediate need of providing affordable housing for six families that include agricultural workers. One is a blueberry raker, and another is a [lobster boat] sternman. The others are doing a variety of jobs in the seafood processing area.”
Residents of Hand in Hand Apartments pay rent equal to 30 percent of family income and pay for their electricity usage. Mano en Mano and USDA subsidies cover other costs of maintaining the complex under a contract with Cherryfield-based Fickett Property Management.
“By saving money on housing, these families can make investments in education and cover costs related to their work,” Yaffe said.
Yaffe said two of the apartments have turned over in the 15 months they have been available.
“As their incomes go up, families can move into the fair-market housing that they can afford because it’s not costing them 50 percent of their income. There is cheaper housing out there than these apartments, but it’s not three bedrooms, and they aren’t places where you might want to raise your kids.”
Jamie Thompson-Oftorga and her family were the first tenants to sign a lease at the complex and have lived in their three-bedroom apartment since July 2011.
“This was truly an answer to my prayers,” she said Monday. “We have two kids, a boy and a girl, and we were living in a small apartment on the second floor of house in Milbridge that was facing foreclosure. We had to get out, but we had nowhere to go. Now the kids each have their own bedrooms. It’s been quite a change.”
Jamie is white and was raised in Milbridge. Her husband, Reynaldo, is Hispanic. Their children, ages 5 and 8, both attend Milbridge Elementary School, as did Jamie some years ago. Reynaldo, she said, works seasonal jobs within Washington County’s lobster, blueberry and wreath-making industries.
“This place is really nice, and they take very good care of it,” she said of the Wyman Street complex.
Mano en Mano recently relocated to a new office complex at 2 Maple St. in Milbridge, a building that most recently housed the Washington-Hancock Community Agency. That facility significantly expanded Mano en Mano’s office space and provided a first-floor meeting room that can seat up to 50 people. The space is most frequently used for drop-in English and Spanish classes.
The agency’s public programming includes adult education classes that offer individual and group instruction in language, computer literacy, GED preparation and workplace communication. Heading up that effort is Robin Lovrien, who began work this month as director of adult education. She brings to the job a doctorate in adult education and 45 years of teaching English as a second language, most recently in Washington, D.C.
“I’m working not only with Spanish-speakers who want to learn English to better communicate with their supervisors at their jobs, but supervisors who want to learn some Spanish so they can better communicate with the workers,” Lovrien said. “I have a volunteer who developed a very innovative computer program that translates simple phrases so that you can hear the Spanish translation. One woman I work with, who runs a lobster pound with her husband, has put this on her phone and uses it in interacting with her Spanish-speaking workers.”
Yaffe said Mano en Mano has a 2012 annual operating budget of $350,000, with $300,000 of that amount allocated to programming and $50,000 to operating the Hand in Hand Apartments and covering the building’s debt service.
Operational costs are covered largely from grants awarded by a mix of 10 different foundations and charitable trusts. The rest comes from fundraising efforts. Last year’s annual fundraising campaign attracted $19,000 from 90 different donors. The agency’s current annual fundraising goal is $35,000, Yaffe said.
“Our annual fund gifts have grown pretty remarkably over the past several years,” he said. “In 2010 we had $15,000 in donations. In 2011 that increased to $19,000. This year we are projecting that will jump to $30,000 as we engage more people in the community. About 50 percent of our donations come from the Washington County community. At this point we are chasing results, not dollars. If we can achieve what we want to achieve, the annual fund will sell itself.”
Information about Mano en Mano can be found at www.manomaine.org.