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When neighbors in Brooklyn need help with homework or Latino housing rights, this Baltimore teacher’s aide steps in

Stepping in to translate between landlords and tenants, Kendra Summers saw that her Latino neighbors needed an advocate.

The teacher’s aide at Brooklyn’s Maree Garnett Farring Elementary School created Casa Amable — which translates to “Kind Home” — a program that teaches residents new to the U.S. about tenant rights and the housing process regardless of their legal status.

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In 2019, Summers was awarded an 18-month community fellowship with the Open Society Institute, which provides activists and social entrepreneurs with funding to address problems such as health equity, youth development and criminal justice in underserved Baltimore City communities. Last year, Summers had to switch gears and launch Casa Amable while helping her community cope with the pandemic through vaccine outreach, food drives and ensuring students had internet access for distance learning.

Kendra Summers, an ESOL teacher at Maree Garnett Farring Elementary School in the Brooklyn neighborhood of south Baltimore, hugs student Jade Zumba Zhagui outside the school at disimissal time. June 3, 2021
Kendra Summers, an ESOL teacher at Maree Garnett Farring Elementary School in the Brooklyn neighborhood of south Baltimore, hugs student Jade Zumba Zhagui outside the school at disimissal time. June 3, 2021 (Barbara Haddock Taylor)

“We were going to meet in person, and I had spaces rented,” she said of her plans for the organization. “Child care was going to be there, but with the pandemic, it was more phone calls and touching base.”

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Summers has lived in Brooklyn for the past seven years. Last summer, she started a WhatsApp group called Familias de Brooklyn to connect neighbors with resources such as clothing drives and clinics for COVID-19 testing; it now has over 200 members. Summers also became a Latinx ambassador to build trust in the community and clear up misinformation about the vaccination process for the Baltimore City Health Department.

“The biggest thing that my fellowship gave me was the ability to be free and just float where I was needed during this pandemic,” said Summers, who continued working part-time at Maree Garnett Farring Elementary. Without it, “I would [not] have been able to serve the community as much as I’ve been able to.”

It took the first half of the academic year for Summers and her colleagues to call every family on the school’s roster. One mother knocked on Summers’ front door at 7 p.m., needing help with accessing the internet and her child’s assignments.

“Many of our Latino residents work jobs where they might leave before the sun comes up and they come home as the sun is going down,” Summers said. “It’s really fulfilling to make the connections with people and just get what needs to get done for them, because unfortunately, a school can’t always work around their schedule.”

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Summers made home visits for families who were struggling with economic insecurity and unreachable by phone.

“I really had to put my ear to the ground and talk to residents,” Summers said. “We had some students who disappeared, for lack of a better term, and we didn’t know how to connect with them. We wanted to make sure they were OK.”

One of the parents she visited was Elba Yanira Morales Merlos, who has two children, one in second and the other in fifth grade. Summers taught English as a Second Language (ESOL) to Merlos’ eldest child this school year.

“[Kendra] is a great teacher, and she’s helped my children a lot,” Merlos said. “She’s kind and friendly and the perfect person to seek help in. There were things that I didn’t understand about enrolling my kids when I moved here, and thank God, we crossed paths.”

During the pandemic, Summers organized a food drive over 12 weeks that served more than 6,000 hot meals at a predominantly Latino apartment complex on West Jeffrey Street. Summers collaborated with Mera Kitchen Collective, World Central Kitchen and the Greater Baybrook Alliance. At the food drive, Latino families in Brooklyn and Curtis Bay swapped and donated school supplies, face masks and toiletries.

“Kendra is such a natural leader,” said Meredith Chaiken, the executive director of Greater Baybrook Alliance, a nonprofit centered on equitable development and reinvestment in neighborhoods like Brooklyn and Curtis Bay. “She’s very networked and plugged into the community. She’s volunteered for us in a lot of capacities, but specifically with the immigrant community. She helps with translation so that our meetings are accessible.”

Summers is first-generation American. Her mother immigrated from Argentina 39 years ago. Summers understands how access to information and education can elevate a community and hopes to expand Casa Amable.

Currently, Summers has six participants enrolled in the program. And by partnering with Greater Baybrook Alliance, two participants are applying to receive $50,000 for home renovation loans and $20,500 for new home purchases.

Stephanie García is a 2020-21 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project, a national service program that places emerging journalists in local newsrooms. She covers issues relevant to Latino communities. Follow her at @HagiaStephia.

This article is part of our Newsmaker series that profiles notable people in the Baltimore region who are having an impact in our diverse communities. If you’d like to suggest someone who should be profiled, please send their name and a short description of what they are doing to make a difference to: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Editor Kamau High at khigh@baltsun.com.

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