Latino Rotary group believes in giving back

ROCHESTER — Jessenia Hernández loves books.

That is why the 6-year-old kindergartner looks forward to hearing stories read by Latino Rotary volunteers who come nearly every week to the Eugenio Maria de Hostos Charter School for the Reading Buddies program.

"It’s fun because you get to picture it (the story) in your mind" when the volunteers are reading, Jessenia said.

Giving back to the community is an essential component of the Latino Rotary’s mission, said Yesenia Ramos, one of its members and volunteer readers. Ramos said that she has a vested interest in the kindergarten-through-third-grade school, which is located in the former Our Lady of Perpetual Help School building on Joseph Avenue, because her son is a student there.

"I believe in the mission of giving of your time and of ourselves," she added. "And it’s so easy to give back when you’re among people who feel the same way. … So when the opportunity to read at the school came up, I jumped at the chance."

Miriam Vázquez, the school’s former principal and the Latino Rotary’s literacy chairwoman, said the Reading Buddies program provides an opportunity to expose children to literature from as many sources as possible in both English and Spanish.

"This helps them develop vocabulary, learn content, learn story structure and value reading for recreational purposes as well as learning," she added.

The group will celebrate its first anniversary during a party planned for next month. Founder Luisa Baars, who also serves as a Reading Buddy, said that she is proud of what the group has accomplished in its first year.

"Our focus has been on literacy because … our kids drop out of school in disproportionate numbers," she said. "And we know education is essential to be successful in life."

The idea for a Rotary club for Hispanics in Rochester first came up at a Rotary International planning meeting in Cleveland in October 2008, said Baars, who operates MAS Translation Service with her husband, Wim. Because Rochester has the only chapter for people who are deaf or hard of hearing, a precedent had been set to create a chapter for Hispanics, she added.

Additionally, with few Hispanic members in the Rochester district’s 67 Rotary clubs, a new approach was needed, noted Baars, who is an assistant district governor and whose husband is treasurer. The organization has 1.2 million members in 126 countries.

"We thought maybe this would attract people … and it did," Baars said. "We had a wonderful response from the Latino community."

While its initial numbers were low — eight people attended the first meeting last January — the club had grown to 27 members by April when it received its international charter, Baars said. A minimum of 20 members is required to receive a charter, she added.

"It was record time from beginning to charter," said Baars, who is a native of Puerto Rico.

The group meets weekly at PathStone Corp. on East Avenue. That is how Ramos, a PathStone employee, first learned of the group.

She said that she is amazed at what the group has accomplished in its short history — from raising money for dictionaries to donate to the charter school, to working on Habitat for Humanity projects and raising money for Haiti in collaboration with Ibero-American Action League and the American Red Cross.

The group also has collected money to build a roof for a school in El Sauce, Nicaragua, after visiting with the town’s mayor during her Rochester visit last fall, said Baars, as well as provided toys to children who live in PathStone housing units and beauty products to women living in shelters.

"We’ve done so much in our first year," Ramos added. "I can only imagine what the future will bring."

Baars said that the chapter’s incoming new president Elisa DeJesus, who takes on her new post in July and replaces Roberto Burgos, has been in talks with Rotary officials from the Dominican Republic about raising money for projects in the Caribbean nation.

"We hope to be able to do greater things," Baars remarked.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Latino Rotary group will hold its first-anniversary celebration Saturday, April 10, at St. Michael Church’s hall, 869 N. Clinton Ave., from 6 p.m. to midnight. For more information, call 585-266-8112.

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