By ROBERT STEWART
A young crowd scooted to their seats as U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen entered the room on Sept. 8. Five minutes earlier, the crowd had been buzzing around, draping tables with tablecloths and repositioning industrial-sized fans in preparation for the senator’s visit. Within minutes, the roughly 40 seats in the front half of the auditorium were almost full.
There was a palpable excitement in the air, as Van Hollen was there, along with other elected officials, to learn firsthand about the Maryland Multicultural Youth Center’s (MMYC) work. He helped secure more than $500,000 in federal funds to support the center’s social service career training program.
Young participants in the crowd talked about their experiences with the services the Riverdale Center offers and their reasons for getting involved.
Anginell Tovar, 20, of Riverdale, said when she first came to the United States from Venezuela, she had no one to help and guide her or to tell her how things worked. She didn’t speak any English, she said.
Not having a mentor prompted Tovar to begin training at the MMYC to serve the county’s youth. In an interview, she said she wanted to “become the person I needed at the time.” Even as she’s still in training, Tovar looks forward to applying the skills she’s gaining at the center to help others.
One by one, participants passed around a microphone and shared their experiences. Applause and hoots followed individuals’ stories of achievement, as speakers recounted the positive role the MMYC has played in their lives. The center, which opened its doors in 2005, is a branch of the D.C.-based Latin American Youth Center (LAYC).
Some speakers reported gaining more confidence. Others talked about the positive effect the center’s mentors had on them during their adolescence. Those gains, they said, prompted some of them to become mentors in return.
According to Flordelisa Dolan Perez, MMYC’s chief development and communications officer, the center offers services addressing housing, education, community wellness and workforce training.
Housing support includes a host homes program that provides three weeks of emergency shelter to unhomed and runaway youth. A street outreach program is designed to locate and assist young adults who are at risk of becoming unhomed. The center supports at-risk young adults by providing food, clothing and personal hygiene products, as well.
The educational program includes academic enrichment and after-school support and collaborates with AmeriCorps volunteers to provide educational support to youth in Buck Lodge and William Wirt middle schools. The center coordinates a food distribution program at MMYC’s facility in Riverdale every Thursday morning and also offers HIV testing as part of their community wellness work.
GED classes are a highlight of the center’s workforce training program, Dolan Perez said.
Jasmin Lemus-Zelaya, 23, of Clinton, is an MMYC staff member. She said she is proudest of the way the organization helps people access the help they need. “Here in P[rince] G[eorge’s County], they just make an environment where they don’t need to feel ashamed. It’s OK to need help, and it’s OK to ask,” she said.
At the end of their visit, officials reflected on what they had heard during the meeting.
“I remember in 2006 coming to the Langley Park site, and it’s really heartening to see how this program has grown, both in scope and strength, and I could just say, I’m very very inspired by your stories,” Van Hollen said. He added that he would keep working to invest in Maryland organizations that help to make communities stronger.
“The work they do for the community, it’s just so vitally important,” said state Del. Nicole Williams (District 22), where MMYC is located.
Prince George’s County Councilmember Eric Olson (District 3) added his praise. “Oh, my gosh,” he said, referring to the stories he heard. “So, compelling. So moving. I wish everyone could hear the stories of what young people are doing here in the community. It’s just amazing work that they’re doing.”
Mirna “Lupi” Quinteros-Grady, the president and CEO of the Latin American Youth Center, had one message for anyone who wants to help the county’s youth: Get involved.
Speaking about opportunities available to local college students, she said, “If they want to do community service or be involved in the community, we have a once-a-week food distribution here on site.” She said they always need help with prep and distribution and noted that other opportunities are posted on the LAYC website (layc-dc.org/volunteer).
There are ways to be engaged, she said. “If you see a young person in need, try to reach out to see if there’s a way that we can try to support.”