VALDOSTA -- A few weeks ago, when the South Georgia Regional Library's Hispanic program abruptly ceased, people responded.

Letters and a petition have demanded that the regional library's branches

reinstate the Spanish-to-English and English-to-Spanish language classes,

the festivals, Spanish movie nights and similar programs that dotted the library's schedule over the past several months.

Liza Newsome, South Georgia Regional Library executive director, says she would love for the programs to continue. The problem is the grant that funded the library's Hispanic program has run dry.

Earlier this year, South Georgia Regional Library received a $25,050 six-month grant from the federal Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA). The grant's purpose was to establish programs aiding South Georgia's growing Hispanic population as well as foster a sense of community between the newer Hispanic residents and the region's more traditional English-speaking members.

"The main purpose of the grant," Newsome says, "was to increase tolerance and understanding."

With branches in Lowndes, Lanier and Echols counties, South Georgia Regional Library used the grant to hire language instructors to teach the Hispanic community English and the more traditional area residents Spanish. Discovering a need in the region's migrant work camps, the grant funded programs that brought the classes to the camps. It financed a summer cinema festival of Spanish-language movies.

The grant enabled the library system to sponsor last month's Festival Internacional, which was attended by hundreds of Hispanic and more traditional residents at the Johnston Lake Park Library.

"We thought the grant would allow us to test the waters to see if there is a need for such programs in the region," Newsome says. "We learned that the waters are deep."

Community response overwhelmed the library staff.

English-speaking staff and personnel from area businesses and agencies that regularly deal with the Hispanic population signed up for the free English-to-Spanish classes; they came wanting to learn the rudiments of Spanish or learn how to say specific phrases, such as "Meet me at the yellow barn," in Spanish. Dozens of Latinos attended the free Spanish-to-English classes at the library's branches or in the work camps, allowing them to better communicate with the majority of the region's population.

Through the grant's programs, the library discovered a need for the classes. The programs were beginning to bridge a communication gap within the region, but they also shortened the cultural gap between the traditional residents and the Hispanic community. The library became a hub where traditional South Georgia residents could meet their new neighbors in a spirit of understanding, as evidenced by the success of the festival. At the library, the Hispanic community discovered a place that welcomed them and understood their needs and native language.

On Sept. 30, the grant money ran out and the library no longer had the funds to support the program.

Astrid Roa is one of the language teachers hired through the grant. A native of Colombia and a South Georgia transplant, she witnessed how the program was breaking down walls between the traditional community and the Hispanic population.

While there are many local agencies, churches and organizations dedicated to working with the Hispanic population, there are relatively no programs similar to the library's, Roa says, which presented the possibility of more direct communication between the two cultures.

A few critics of the program complained to the library that people should speak English if they are going to live here. Well, Newsome and Roa explain, that's one of the things this program was doing.

For now, however, the classes have stopped. The library had to let the language teachers go because, without funding from the non-renewable LSTA grant, it doesn't have the money to pay them.

Yet, having seen the need, the library hasn't given up on the program's ideals. Newsome has been contacting Valdosta State University and Valdosta Technical College to see if either educational facility can initiate a similar program. Meanwhile, South Georgia Regional Library hasn't given up on the idea of reinstating the program itself.

Newsome says it would take several thousands of dollars but the sum would not have to be nearly the size of the original $25,050 grant. Some of the grant money was used to purchase signs and materials which the library still has.

Newsome hopes some local businesses will recognize the importance of the program and donate funds for its reinstatement. Better communication, after all, can lead to more profits, increased customer service and, as the library has learned, a deeper sense of understanding.

For more information on the program or to contribute to its reinstatement, contact Liza Newsome, South Georgia Regional Library, 300 Woodrow Wilson Drive; or call 333-0086.

To contact Dean Poling, please call 244-3400, ext. 258.

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