Thurston County Youth Organization Brings Language and Music TOGETHER!

A child playing a violin smiles at the camera.
A student plays violin as part of TOGETHER!’s Club House program, which created opportunities to deepen learning in the Spanish language and mariachi music.

When Kahlo Flores saw the students she serves struggling with language shame, she recognized the experiences she had as a child — and saw an opportunity to make a positive change.

Language shame, she explained, can occur when people whose native language is not English must try to navigate systems and institutions in which English is the primary — or only — language spoken. Flores said her parents spoke Spanish at home, but because neither of them were educated beyond sixth grade, it was up to her to learn Spanish grammar and spelling. Since Flores went to schools that taught in English, she stepped away from Spanish.

“I saw the same story of my childhood begin to replay, and I was like, no, it has to stop,” Flores said. “We need to make sure we make a change, and we can’t change the world, but we can at least start with our Club House programs.”

Flores is now the Director of Club House Community Outreach and Dual Language for TOGETHER!, a Thurston County non-profit organization that works to advance the health and wellbeing of young people and their families. The Club House program offers before- and after-school activities including tutoring and help with homework, national park visits, and opportunities to deepen learning in language and music. It aims to serve elementary and middle school students from low-income families, students of color, students struggling with academics, students with disabilities, and students who are English language learners.

With the support of grants for community-based organizations (CBOs) from federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) and American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds, the Club House program has been able to further develop its language and music programming. With the goal of engaging students in language learning while also having fun, TOGETHER! utilized funding to bring mariachi music instruction to the Club House program.

“Students were able to learn a song,” Flores said. “We wanted to see if this would encourage them to do so, and it sure did.”

Flores had a similar experience while she was growing up. After stepping away from speaking and learning Spanish, she started participating in a mariachi program in middle school and continued through high school.

“That’s when I was exposed to music and songs in Spanish,” Flores said. “I was able to read, listen, speak, sing, and play mariachi music, which strengthened my Spanish.”

While Flores acknowledged that students took some time to warm up to speaking Spanish in Club House programs, she said they’re now excited to be using the language in their learning. The opportunity to learn mariachi music has been another way to create a space where young people can be their authentic selves, said Kaira Gomez-Garcia, TOGETHER!’s Club House Program Director.

“There was one mariachi instructor who only spoke Spanish, and it was so beautiful to see the kiddos ask questions and then wait so patiently for them to translate,” Gomez-Garcia said. “Then they would get their response and they’d be so excited to be speaking to somebody that only spoke another language.”

In addition to supporting language learning and musical opportunities, TOGETHER! has also utilized CBO grant funding to hire a full-time Family Support Liaison who exclusively serves Club House students and families. The liaison provides wraparound services including homelessness prevention, rapid rehousing, and assistance with paying bills and accessing fresh food.

The need has proven incredibly high as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, the Yelm Community Schools requested more than $100,000 for assistance with rent or bills in the span of just three weeks during the height of the pandemic.

The Family Support Liaison has been particularly helpful in meeting the needs of students and families who otherwise would not have received assistance.

“Many people are not wanting to ask for help,” Flores said. “We serve undocumented folks; we serve folks that are just scared of systematic oppression.”

With a separate CBO grant also supported by ESSER and ARP funds, TOGETHER! is establishing a Host Homes program that will provide housing to students ages 13–21 who are not in the care of an adult. Students will be matched with volunteer host families who are vetted and trained, and will also receive case management and wraparound supports.

Meghan Sullivan, TOGETHER!’s Deputy Director, said the Host Homes program is based on a national model that was first implemented in Minneapolis, MN, out of recognition that many young people experiencing homelessness are also members of the LGBTQ+ community.

“As we have worked with, and looked at, and tried to meet the needs of young people that are in our various programs that are houseless, there are gaps in the service continuum locally,” Sullivan said. “We began to look at this model probably three years ago as, gosh, it would be really great if that were here in our community.”

The ability to make a difference in the lives of young people is what keeps Flores, Gomez-Garcia, and Sullivan returning to work every day.

“When you really think of a child, it’s the whole picture,” Gomez-Garcia said. “You think of their family members, and you think of their education, and the community, and the world at large, and how that can grow and hopefully become better than what it is.”

This story is the first in a four-part series that features community-based organizations across Washington and the projects and programs they have been able to implement with support from federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds.

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