It all began when Spanish teacher Melynda Velez noticed some Hispanic students were falling behind in their studies in the local schools.
"I was going and translating for Harford County Public Schools and while I was doing it, I was noticing all these Hispanic kids were being identified as 'delayed.' And they weren't delayed; they were un-initiated," Velez says. "I said, this is a sin. I've got to fix this."
Then, in 2009, a Spanish speaker asked Velez for help with translation and transportation to a local Patient First urgent care clinic. Velez was shocked to find the person was seriously ill but unable to communicate with the doctor, who also had a thick Russian accent.
A local attorney urged her to start a non-profit and, that same year, LASOS Inc., (Linking All So Others Succeed) was launched by Velez to provide literacy skills, translation services and mentoring for at-risk youth for Harford's non-English speakers.
Since then, the number of people served by the organization has grown steadily, as has the number of Harford County residents who don't speak English.
LASOS has grown from 833 members in 2011 to 1,351 in 2012 to more than 2,600 families, or at least 4,000 individuals, today, Velez said.
Many get help
"When I moved here, I was a Spanish teacher at Bel Air High School and we were pretty much the only Spanish speakers in the area," Velez, now a teacher mentor at Aberdeen High School, said about her 1993 arrival in Harford with her husband, who is from Mexico.
LASOS now uses translators for up to 76 different languages, in everything from Tagalog to Hindi and Urdu, she said.
About 75 percent of members are Hispanic, but the county also has a large group of people from Asia, India and Africa, she said. There also are small contingents from places like Russia (about 75 or 80 people) and Egypt (about 92 people), she said.
Velez said 93 percent of LASOS' membership is from Harford, while the remaining 7 percent is from Baltimore City, Baltimore County, Cecil County and York County, Pa. One couple is also from Kent County.
The organization attracts about 220 volunteers each year but has just one full-time employee, Christine McPherson, who oversees the office.
As a blonde, white woman, Velez, 43, jokes about being an unlikely candidate for the head of a group that primarily works with Hispanics.
Velez, who also speaks Japanese and German, grew up living in several countries with parents who worked in the Department of Defense. She said she learned Spanish after becoming best friends with a Mexican.
In Harford County, "I loved the sense of community that was here," Velez said about the place she has called home for more than 20 years.
LASOS does everything from assisting with citizenship services to helping more than 300 people sign up for health care last year.
Velez also pushes her members to stay out of trouble and follow what she calls American cultural norms.
"We might have a Latin dance, but I'm there," she said. "They know not to misbehave, because I will be there in an instant."