By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
She was 13 when her family fled Cuba after Fidel Castro had taken her father's thriving dairy and sugar cane fields. She spoke no English when they arrived in Miami in 1962. Only after the U.S. government had helped relocate her family to Oklahoma City, where job prospects for immigrants were deemed better, did she begin to gain some degree of comfort and understanding of her new environment. Still, it was never easy. Yet she learned the language, graduated from high school, then Oklahoma City University. At the first school where she was hired as a Spanish teacher, her once financially successful father worked as the janitor. Her mother, a teacher in Cuba, had settled into a job as a seamstress for a local department store. "Still," their daughter says, "they were very proud of the fact they had become Americans."
Which is to say Paliotta, 55, was a well-qualified choice to coordinate the operation of the H-E-B school district's 3-year-old Welcome Center, an innovative academic and social oasis for immigrant families who have moved to the melting pot mid-cities. She's been where those who now knock on her door have been, knows their fears and uncertainties, their needs and frightening handicaps.
While virtually all schools, public and private, now have some form of testing and preparatory programs for non-English-speaking students coming into the educational system, the state grant-funded center, designed and watched over by Paliotta, takes a much broader approach. "We have a holistic mind-set here," she says. "In truth, we're social workers at heart. We want this place to be a nurturing safety net for the newly arrived." Thus, while the program's primary concern is to rapidly educate students, age 7 to 18, in the language of their new home, introduce them to the technical world of computers and familiarize them with social mores, it is only the beginning of the job taken on by Paliotta and her four-person staff. With the help of an expansive network of charities, business owners, doctors and the school district's PTA, the needs of entire immigrant families are addressed.
While their children receive English instruction from two teachers permanently assigned to the center, parents quickly learn that Paliotta and Diane Reyes, a native of Mexico who serves as the program's parent/community liaison, stand ready to help them settle into the community. "We try to make their transition as easy as possible," Reyes says. "We want them to know they can come here and feel comfortable. We've worked hard to make everyone aware that they can expect a non-judgmental atmosphere here. For many of the parents, this is a home away from home." It is also a place where they can seek help finding work, food, clothing, medical attention, spiritual guidance and even receive education themselves. Adult classes offered at the Welcome Center range from English to basic computer literacy to steps toward earning a GED.
"For the children to feel comfortable," Paliotta says, "it is important that the entire family is integrated into the community as quickly as possible."
It was in the late '90s, while working as an English as a second language (ESL) teacher, that she approached Gene Buinger, superintendent of the H-E-B schools, with the idea of creating a center that would provide a variety of immigrant services under one roof. Buinger immediately embraced the idea, and in the summer of 2000 the school district received a $107,000 start-up grant from the state. Paliotta was named director.
Now, as a new school year begins, the endless mission continues. Children from all corners of the world will arrive, apprehensive and shy, to be taught. Paliotta points out that in the H-E-B school district, there are no less than 71 languages spoken by its students. Many children, she says, come from countries that don't even have the same alphabet used in English-speaking countries. "We had a class last year," she recalls, "that included three Koreans, two Chinese, one child from Nepal, one from Pakistan and one from Sudan."
The center's students often arrive here only after escaping the ravages of war and abject poverty. "In many cases," Reyes says, "the children's past lives are too horrible to even comprehend." She tells of a teen-age girl from Liberia who would not even speak when she first came to classes. "She had seen so many atrocities, so much death and suffering, that she was really psychologically wounded. Slowly, though, she began to feel better about her new home and new friends." Last spring, the girl graduated and is currently training to become a nurse.
The success stories, Paliotta unabashedly points out, are numerous. She tells of 16-year-old Paulina, who arrived with her ill mother and two younger sisters from Mexico. The teen-ager, with medical problems of her own, was solely responsible for the care of her family. It was, ultimately, the Welcome Center that not only arranged for doctor's care but persuaded Paulina to finish her education. She will graduate this year.
Then, there is the Sudanese family that now has a home, clothing and jobs, thanks to the center and its charitable connections. And the story of the 17-year-old Mexican national who worked nights to support his family, then routinely fell asleep during the daytime English classes in which he'd enrolled. "Finally," says Paliotta, "I called him aside and told him to come straight to my office after work each morning. I gave him a blanket and pillow and told him to take a short nap on my floor before going to class."
At the Welcome Center, you do what you have to do.
Help, she acknowledges, comes from myriad benefactors in the community. The PTA donates school supplies for the immigrant children, and a "summer Santa" program organized by members of the Federal Aviation Administration at nearby D-FW International Airport annually finances shopping trips for school clothing. If it is medical attention, legal help or a job that is needed, Paliotta has numbers to call. "Our network of charities has been a godsend," she says. Area hotels, fast-food restaurants and the airlines now contact her when in search of workers. Many parents of immigrant students work in the cafeterias of schools their children attend.
She smiles as she recalls a conversation with three Bulgarian youngsters during last year's Christmas season. "One of our charities had asked that we find out what each child would like as a present. They, of course, were talking of toys. When I asked these kids, however, they each had the same wish--a bed so they would no longer have to sleep on the floor." Happy ending: They got not one bed, but three. And a toy each.
When, in the wake of the World Trade Center attack, a Muslim father came to the Welcome Center, worried that his children might become the target of some form of retribution from classmates, his concerns were quickly eliminated. "From experience, we were able to assure him that as a part of the Welcome Center family they would not be treated badly," Reyes says. "And they weren't."
By all measure, the H-E-B school district's Welcome Center would seem to be a galloping success. So much so that officials from other school districts now visit to observe as they contemplate plans for similar programs in their communities. That is one of the reasons Paliotta will retire at the end of this month from the job she, in effect, created and become a consultant to other schools planning improvement of their services to newly arrived immigrant students and their families.
"Acela has been the heart and soul of this place, the passion behind it," Reyes says. "She taught us how to recognize and understand people's needs and to work as a team to see those needs are met. She's made sure that we know how to carry on."
"I know I will miss it terribly," Paliotta says, "but it is time."
Why? For all the recollections of smiling young faces, the appreciative hugs and handshakes and the personal satisfaction the job has afforded her, there is a dark memory she seldom speaks of but is still trying to escape. On a March evening in 2001, Armond Paliotta, her husband of 22 years and a man who championed her efforts to make the Welcome Center a reality, was murdered during a robbery at an Arlington men's clothing store he managed. The man convicted of firing the fatal shot was a 23-year-old Honduras native named Heilberto Chi, a man her husband had given a job.
And so she hopes that a change, a new career direction, might dim the memory of that tragedy. Friends like Diane Reyes are betting it will. New beginnings, after all, are what Acela Paliotta does best.