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.
Velez is busy moving LASOS from 31 Courtland St. in Bel Air to a larger building nearby, on the corner of Courtland and Bond streets, that she bought last year from the county for $217,750.
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."
Why do they listen to her?
"I'm kind of like the godmother," Velez explained. They listen "because of everything that we do for them."
Despite the challenges often faced by immigrants, Velez said Harford has not seen any serious issues with crime or substance abuse from her constituency.
She said the county is "fortunate" to have both first-generation immigrants and newcomers. LASOS, she said, is a big part of the push to nip in the bud any cycle of poverty or crime among the new arrivals.
Velez doesn't seem too worried about the broader national debate about immigration or the negative perception some might have about groups that help immigrants, especially undocumented ones.
"We have had people come in here and ask us to sign petitions, and we are like, 'Do you know what we do?'" Velez said with a laugh, referring primarily to the massive, but ultimately unsuccessful, 2012 movement against the state's Dream Act, which offered tuition breaks for undocumented immigrants.
'We deal with people'
"We are not an advocacy group. We deal with people," she said curtly. "It's not our place to judge. That is not my job and that is not what I have been asked to do. My job is to help people who are new in our community to build their roots and not be a burden."
"Do we really want to say we don't want to help someone?" she asked. "We will have gangs and we will be [Prince George's] County."
LASOS also pushes members to become U.S. citizens, even when many do not see the advantage to paying more money for citizenship if they are already a lawful permanent resident, or LPR.
"They think the process is harder than it is. It's a hassle for them," Velez noted, adding many do not know that residents who are older than 60 and have lived in the U.S. for 25 years can take the citizenship test in their own language.
McPherson, who grew up in Bel Air, called Harford a "very accepting community" that should rise to the challenge of helping new immigrants.
"I think there's a huge ignorance between the immigrant story and that of intergenerational poverty," McPherson said. "That is exactly what we are out to conquer."
"We are really not allowing what, honestly, we Americans have allowed with intergenerational poverty," McPherson said. "They [immigrants] have struggled so much... that they just need someone who says, 'You can do this,' even if it's something as simple as making a call to get a taxi."
In 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 3.8 percent of Harford's almost 250,000 residents, between 9,000 and 10,000, were Hispanic and 2.8 percent were Asian. Five percent were born outside the U.S. and 7.5 percent spoke a language other than English at home. Those percentages are below statewide averages and those in other Maryland counties.
Velez said Harford County is doing a good job meeting the needs of non-English speakers.
County officials are mostly concerned that if Harford becomes more than 4.3 percent Hispanic, the county will legally be required to provide all materials in both English and Spanish, a major expense, she said.
One LASOS member, Nelly Ramirez, said the organization has been a big help with everything from providing lawyers to helping figure out her son's papers in school and making doctor appointments.
Ramirez, who is originally from El Salvador and has lived in Bel Air for 14 years, apologized for her broken English but said it has definitely improved.
"LASOS helps the Spanish community," Ramirez said. "They help with everything I need, my son to learn English. He gets new friends. LASOS helps me a lot with my English, too."
Velez said in her members' minds, they are middle-class. That is why most of LASOS' programming revolves around literacy and is aimed at children.
"We are able to take that thought process they have and push that further to make the kids successful," she said, noting many parents are uneducated and take classes alongside their children. "This is our chance."
Unlike literacy programs, like those at Harford Community College, LASOS' is focused on "integrating, not academics," she said.
Velez talked excitedly about watching children from the literacy programs help teach younger ones. Adults who have used LASOS also often come back to mentor and aid others.
"I think that's the coolest thing is, since we have kind of taught them, they see the value of helping others," she said.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun