SUNNYSIDE — When they say Nuestra Casa es Su Casa (Our House is Your House), it’s true — literally and figuratively.
Nuestra Casa is welcoming to all, men and women, young and old, English or Spanish speaking.
Its special mission, however, is to assist Spanish-speaking immigrant women of limited means.
For a decade, the house has been opening its doors five days a week, all year, providing education in all realms of life:
• What’s the difference between there, their and they’re?
• How fast should you drive in a school zone?
• Who wrote the Declaration of Independence?
Nuestra Casa is the little house just off the prairie that finds out what immigrant women need and goes about offering it.
“Nuestra Casa gives women the opportunity to grow as a person, a woman and spiritually,” said Guadalupe Santana, who became a U.S. citizen eight years ago after taking classes at the house. “They teach us that women are important.”
The modest house on South Sixth Street opened in 2003 with the idea of helping educate under-served women who wanted more schooling.
“We offer education in the broadest sense,” explained Sister Mary Rita Rohde, 72, founder and director.
Classes, workshops and referral services are free, although there’s a modest fee for some materials. Last year the nonprofit served some 900 adults, helping them fulfill their goals, whether they are learning English, obtaining a GED, finding out how take better care of their hearts or connecting to community resources, such as food banks.
The 10 years of accomplishments will be celebrated at an anniversary dinner March 9 at Sunnyside Presbyterian Church.
“I wish we had more places like this in town,” said Dorris Kresse, branch manager of US Bank in Sunnyside and one of 10 members on Nuestra Casa’s board of directors.
“It’s very impressive — they teach English, life skills, drivers’ ed and just about anything,” Kresse pointed out. “They help monolingual women get involved in the community, and then they don’t feel so isolated. It’s amazing to watch it occur.”
Although Rohde is a Catholic nun (she celebrated 50 years as a member of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary last spring), Nuestra Casa is not affiliated with any church. Rohde was a founding faculty member of Heritage University in 1982 and served 15 years as vice president. She left to do ministry work in Canada, then returned here in 2002. That year she interviewed 80 people throughout the Valley, asking what was the greatest need here. The answer: education for low-income immigrant women, who, on average, have a third-grade education.
“They’re the most isolated, least educated, speak the least English and have the least money,” she explained.
With that knowledge and funding from the Holy Names Sisters, she launched Nuestra Casa.
The first offering was drivers’ education. Rohde was aware people were driving without licenses or car insurance.
The first night of class 45 people came. “And all of them drove here,” Rohde smiled.
In the beginning, classes were taught in the small house. Now, because of increasing numbers of participants, most are held next door in St. Joseph’s Church school rooms. Offerings have also expanded. Every morning at least three classes are offered: various levels of English as a Second Language, as well as math and preparation for taking the pre-test for a GED. Parenting classes also are taught.
Most popular are citizenship, given once a week for 10 weeks, and ESL. The former draws about 30 people each time; ESL, encompassing about 60 hours of instruction, usually has about 25 participants.
“You hear people say, ‘Oh, those folks don’t want to learn English,’ but, yes, they do,” said Rohde. “They try their hardest. And it’s very difficult.”
Santana, 50, who runs a day care business, can attest to the complexity of learning English but says Nuestra Casa teachers look for ways to help students learn. She is taking math classes with the goal of earning her GED.
Nuestra Casa also gives workshops covering such subjects as cooking and nutrition, suicide prevention, tax preparation and diabetes education. Teachers come from the ranks of staff members — Blanca Bazaldua, Luz Rodriguez and Esperanza Lemos — and “dozens and dozens” of volunteers — according to Rohde.
“One of the things we’re really good at is looking at what’s needed and asking ‘is anybody meeting it?’” said Rohde, who teaches advanced English four days a week. “Anybody who comes in, regardless of why, we try to help, whether it’s filling out forms or understanding a letter from the IRS,” she said.
Several years ago, Nuestra started a Montessori preschool so young mothers could take classes.
Holy Names Sisters still gives money to the facility and pay Rohde’s salary, but donations and grants make up the bulk of the $135,000 budget.
Men are welcome to take classes and seek referral help for other services, but some offerings remain for women only: exercise classes, a support group and a women’s justice circle, where participants collectively decide a civic issue of greatest concern to them, then travel to Olympia once a year to plead their case to the Legislature. The first year a contingent traveled there, women argued that WASL achievement tests were counter productive. (WASLs were eventually phased out.)
According to Rohde, that’s just one success after a decade of helping Lower Valley women become more independent, better educated and more integrated into the community.
“We’re giving women hope for their future,” she said.
Or, as Santana put it, “Nuestra Casa helps you open doors, because they help you see what you are capable of doing.”
• Vera Sanabria of the Yakima Herald-Republic provided translation for this story.
• Jane Gargas can be reached at 509-577-7690 or firstname.lastname@example.org.