Local Athens Library Dreams Big

A shy boy in the first grade scans the shelves at Pinewoods Library before he picks up a weathered copy of “Diary of a Wimpy Kid.” Every day after school, David joins the majority of his neighborhood peers and files into the double wide trailer on lot G-10 that acts as the community’s library.

As the main branch in the Athens Regional Library System, Athens-Clarke County Library opens its newly renovated interior, Pinewoods still operates within its double wide trailer.

Although Pinewoods library is one of the smallest of the 11 branches in Athens Regional Library system, it is constantly busy. Often the library has to turn away children because of lack of space. The library is a resource center for Pinewoods residents, Hispanic immigrants and training center for University of Georgia students. The residing branch manager, Aida Quiñones, dreams of operating Pinewoods with more room.

“We want to offer more programs,” said Quiñones. “Because of the space, we have to say no to so many things and it’s really painful to say no.” A larger Pinewoods Library could offer more children like David exposure to mentoring and a positive learning environment.

From Monday to Thursday from 3:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m., there is a constant flow of children in and out of the library for the after school tutoring program.

“There are always kids here all the way until we close around 8 p.m.,” said Quiñones. Mentors for the after-school program are typically student volunteers from the University of Georgia. The College of Education sends students who are learning to teach Spanish or ESOL.

Sam Elliot, a senior Spanish major at UGA, feels like she can see the impact mentoring makes, but also identifies the problem of space.

“One of the girls I mentor frequents Pinewoods more than she does her seventh grade classroom,” said Elliot. “There are always kids here, but not enough room to accommodate them all.”

Children are not the only target audience Pinewoods offers programs to. Pinewoods Library attracts Hispanic immigrants within the estate of 2,000 residents and the 18,000 in the greater Athens area. It is one of the only libraries partnered with the Mexican Consulate offering, Plaza Comunitaria, or education courses for primary and secondary levels.

“In this neighborhood we have a lot of residents who never went past 3rd grade. And with this program, they have the opportunity to finish their education,” said Quiñones.

The funds for Pinewoods start with grants. Quiñones said Pinewoods just renewed the American Dream grant through Dollar General which pays for necessary resources to run their programs. Quiñones clarified that the grants only pay for teacher materials, or other resources for the classes.

“Salaries and maintenance do not come from grants, that comes from the Athens Regional, the grants are more for programs that we offer,” she said.

Quiñones says the Pinewoods branch, nestled between other mobile homes, is small.  She does not know if the state and local government consider the number of immigrants Pinewoods attracts from outside the Pinewoods estate in the budget drafting. The library already actively serves the people in the immediate Pinewoods community and is drawing more people, especially with programs like Plaza Comuntaria.

“Many come from Jefferson, Thalmann, Stone Mountain, many places,” said Quiñones. “When they originally constructed the budget for Pinewoods I don’t know if they took that into consideration. I think they only planned on the Pinewoods residents.”

Rhiannon Eades, the Public Relations Specialist for ARLS, explained the funding by comparing the library system to the health department.

“It’s kind of like a secondary agency, the county has input in the budget draft as well as the state,” said Eades.

For the sparkling new children’s area and other completed renovations, the Athens-Clarke County Library received two grants, funds from 2004 SPLOST totaling $8 million and $2 million from the state. Information regarding how other branches can expand settles with the state and local government. The plans for renovations on the main branch in ARLS were initiated several years ago. As the Athens-Clarke County Library revealed their expansion in February 2013, Pinewoods continued to provide a learning atmosphere for Hispanic adults, children, and UGA students from a space smaller than an average school classroom.

Pinewoods Library uses what it has to provide skills and qualifications to the Hispanic population. It offers English as a second language and computer classes. It recently started Spanish classes for Americans. Pinewoods wants to expand, but is inhibited by space. Quiñones explains many parents want more books in Spanish about citizenship education. The citizenship test is in English, which many of the adults in Pinewoods do not know. “All we have right now are these cards,” she holds up a blue card the size of a credit card with President Obama’s face beaming from the center.

“We want to do more education classes, but once again space is an issue,” said Quiñones.

Pinewoods’ biggest dream is expansion and the resulting ability to offer more classes, according to Quiñones. As Quiñones is listing the goals for Pinewoods, a mother is tugging a crying little boy out the front door.

“See they don’t want to leave,” said Quiñones with a laugh.

GED provides new opportunity for undocumented Athenians

Students cradling notebooks file into their GED class, greeting one another in Spanish and filling in the side-arm desks from the back.

“I need it for deferred action,” said one student, a 26-year-old Mexican citizen but U.S. resident for the past twelve years. “I would feel free. With it, you don’t have to be scared anymore.”

Half a million people will get their GED in the United States this year, but education is not necessarily the sole focus of these certificates. For students like the 26-year-old woman, the road to a GED can also serve as a pathway around deportation– at least for now.

On June 15th 2012, President Obama signed an executive order allowing undocumented “childhood arrivals” to apply for “deferred action,” granting immunity from deportation for a two-year period as well as employment authorization. The Athens Latino Center for Education and Services (ALCES), an organization dedicated to promoting the interests of the Latino community in Athens, Ga., has run their GED prep program for over a year, but deferred action revitalized it. Executive director Jeff Zimmerman said registration rose after the announcement, and the center expanded its program in August.

“The deferred action is really big. Being able to legally participate in our economy is a really big deal,” Zimmerman said. “Our GED program, given that possibility, would have a really impact because it opens so many doors for people– brand new jobs they wouldn’t be able to get otherwise, being able to be here without fear of being deported for two years.”

To be eligible for deferred action consideration by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, residents must have arrived in the United States prior to their sixteenth birthday, have continuously resided in the United States for the last five years, have a clean criminal record and either be an honorably discharged veteran, currently in school, have graduated from a high school or awarded a GED. This last provision is where ALCES steps in.

“Our [GED prep] course is pretty intensive, they try to get them through as quickly as possible while still capturing all the necessary content,” Zimmerman said. “We have some pretty focused students.”

The GED is a high school equivalency certificate, open to anyone at least sixteen years of age and not enrolled in a regular high school. The GED is contingent on the cumulative scores of five individual tests. Incentive exists to pass these tests the first time due to the burdens of cost (in the state of Georgia, fees total to $95) and time (low scores can result in a three or six month wait period before individuals can retake the GED tests). Reports from national and local news sources show rising demand for preparation courses from undocumented would-be test-takers, but students struggle to afford private options, barred from free, state-provided classes due to their legal status.

Not every student participating in the GED courses at ALCES does so with aims of deferred action.

“Some want to do it for education purposes or job opportunities,” Zimmerman said.

But he added that at least half, maybe more, are taking these classes in hopes of fulfilling the educational requirement of the policy.

But those who do, according to Jennifer Blalock, an ALCES volunteer who works the front desk, come from all corners of Georgia and even as far as South Carolina to sit in the classrooms at ALCES. She attributes this not only to the classes themselves, but to the role ALCES plays in the Latino community as well.

“We’re established from within the Latino community,” she said, pointing out the multitude of community services ALCES offers.

According to former ALCES executive director Jamie Umaña, 380 students are enrolled in GED classes at the center, a number only limited by classroom space. Blalock says demand is so high that ALCES keeps a waiting list. For the undocumented, the possibility of deferred action makes the GED process all worthwhile.

“I cannot imagine living as an undocumented immigrant. The fear that comes with that of using basic resources that you and I would take for granted every day is crazy,” Zimmerman said. “Being scared of going to the doctor…every traffic stop becomes a terrifying experience– if you’re undocumented you’re un-licenseable.”

Students at the classes agreed. The 26-year-old Mexican immigrant said her life would “change in many ways” if she received deferred action. For her, the most important thing to come with deferred action would be a license, which would enable mobility without fear and the opportunity for a better job.

Another undocumented woman, also from Mexico, agreed. “It’s hard to get a job when you can’t drive or apply with your real name,” she said. The 19-year-old has lived in the U.S. since she was four. Beyond the end, she enjoys the means, saying the classes are good and “getting to learn more about the subjects” is interesting.

Although none of the students knew people awarded deferred action, all still have hope. Hope for a future, according to students, they didn’t have prior to the executive order.

“I dropped out of high school because what’s the point when you can’t go to college or get a job,” said the 19-year-old, now attending GED prep courses but still far from prepared to take the actual test. In the meantime, Zimmerman said the courses build a resource without legal bounds: confidence.

“When people succeed, they get empowered and that can’t really be understated.”

ALCES offers GED classes specializing in language arts, writing, reading, social studies, science and math, either in two-hour increments Monday through Thursday or in a six hour Saturday class. Course duration ranges from three to six months, at $50 a month. The center registers new students every week. ALCES is also always in great need of volunteers to help operate all its many community programs.