When she came back from eight months studying abroad in China, Molly Bradtke of Columbia wanted to find a way to continue to practice her Mandarin in real-world situations.
The UMBC Asian studies major found that outlet at Columbia’s Longwood Apartments and Senior Center — and she found a way to give back to her community at the same time.
Through a partnership between the university and the senior center — and some inspiration from a local nonprofit — students like Bradtke are breaking an often severe language barrier between Longwood’s residents — mostly Chinese and Korean immigrants — and the English-speaking community around them. And for the past year, they’ve been helping the same seniors live healthfully through a full-fledged food pantry.
The idea started with UMBC Asian studies program management specialist Julie Rosenthal, who founded local nonprofit Food on the 15th eight years ago.
“My daughter thought that everyone had food, and if you didn’t, then you use your ATM card and go get it,” Rosenthal says. “If my daughter thinks that, then many others may, too. I wanted an experience where children of any age can help. I wanted them to see the beginning, middle and end of a major service project and the way they can help give back.”
Food on the 15th delivers donated groceries and toiletries to Howard County seniors in need, operating on no overhead, with volunteers doing all of the collecting, organizing and delivery. The deliveries come around the 15th of each month, when many residents’ Social Security checks have run out.
To date, Food on the 15th has delivered more than 19,000 bags of goods to seniors at Morningside Park Apartments in Jessup and the Tiber Hudson Building in Ellicott City.
When Constantine Vaporis, director of UMBC’s Asian studies program, learned about the nonprofit’s work and Longwood Apartments from Rosenthal, he had an idea to take it to the next level.
In fall 2013, the Asian studies program started an internship program at the Longwood Apartments and Senior Center off Foreland Garth Road. Longwood, a Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Section 8 unit, has a majority Korean and Chinese population, many of whom have difficulty speaking English.
“I was very surprised that there was low-income housing there,” says Vaporis. “We found that ... there was a real problem with communication between those who worked there and those who lived there. Something as simple as communicating that their faucet was leaking was a major problem for them,” he says of non-English-speaking residents.
Residents of Longwood Senior Apartments must be 62 years of age or disabled, and make less than $46,100 per year for a one-person household and less than $52,650 for a two-person household, as determined by the HUD. Longwood property manager Nakia Coleman says that because Longwood is a senior and disabled housing facility, most residents are on a fixed income from Social Security or are supported by their families.
Katherine Weir, director of the Longwood Senior Center in the Howard County Office on Aging, says the program helps bridge that gap.
Through the internship program, students assist the housing manager and the director of the senior center by serving as interpreters at community meetings, teaching English language classes, translating documents and facilitating communication between the staff and the residents.
“The students provide written translation so that [residents] are able to keep current with events around the county and here at Longwood Senior Center,” Weir says.
For Klara Kim of Baltimore, the internship program gave her more than just a chance to practice her language skills — it gave her a chance to learn from those with years of experience and wisdom living in a different culture.
“As I worked more closely with the residents, I realized that I can learn from them,” says Kim, who was one of the first two students to get involved in the program. “Giving back feels great, but being able to learn about life and how to live a simple, happy life, that’s something you can always have.”
Last spring, a grant from UMBC launched a sustainable way for Longwood’s low-income seniors to get another basic need — food. Program directors created Longwood’s Asian Food Pantry, which, like Food on the 15th, provides seniors with food and toiletries donated by organizations like Howard County Chinese School, the Chinese Language School of Columbia and the Howard County Boy Scouts Scouting for Food project.
And it now has a home. Eagle Scout Chris Young, a River Hill High School student, built shelves for the pantry, which also operates with no overhead costs thanks to program volunteers and interns from UMBC.
“It’s been wonderful,” Vaporis says. “The translator part of the program gives them a chance to use their language skills, especially when they come back from study abroad and they don’t have a way to use their language skills, and the pantry part of the project is an incredible way to give back and connect UMBC to the community.”
Initially, the Asian Food Pantry served just 20 residents, but demand quickly grew and now about 90 of the 170 residents at Longwood participate in the program.
“It felt great to be able to help,” Bradtke says. “I realized on my first day at Longwood what a need there is in the community for language help but how few resources are devoted to it.”