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Overcoming the Language Barrier

Angie Carrera works to bridge the linguistic gap.

Linda Wimpey is no stranger to language difficulties. As the founder and executive director of the nonprofit group Fairfax Area Christian Emergency and Transitional Services (FACETS), she has clients from all over the world who are battling homelessness in Fairfax County.

“We have seen an increasing number of non-English speaking clients in the homeless population that we’ve served in the last two years and it’s certainly challenging to our staff,” she said. FACETS provides emergency shelter, food and social work to homeless people along the Lee Highway corridor.

FACED WITH the possibility of more and more people slipping through the cracks for lack of English competency, the county created a new position in May, that of language access coordinator, working out of the county executive’s office to oversee the county efforts on the linguistic front. The person hired to fill that position was Angie Carrera. Carrera, a resident of Annandale for the past seven years, was already a county employee, having worked at the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court for 10 years, where she oversaw a program which matched up language volunteers with non-native English speakers who use the court.

While at the court, she also ran a mentoring program for three years. One of her mentees, a 17-year-old girl, ended up moving in with her for five years while she went through college.

“She just never quite left,” said Carrera.

The girl’s younger brother later became Carrera’s foster child for a year.

They are both grown now, she said, “living safely and trouble-free.”

“I’m really proud of them.”

HER NEW POSITION, said Carrera, “was created over quite a long period of time. The county had really been trying to find the best way to approach the problem.”

Before she took over, each department in county government was trying on its own to tackle the problem of providing services to people who could not speak English. Her mission was to streamline the process, to make sure that every department in Fairfax County was dealing with the issue the best way possible.

“I think the Fairfax County staff, they’re excellent,” said Carrera. “However, when they are met with a language and cultural barrier they sometimes struggle.”

To remove those barriers, Carrera has spent her first three months trying to recruit multilingual staff. The county has placed ads in foreign language newspapers and county employees regularly get in touch with representatives from immigrant groups such as SOS Boat People, which helps Southeast Asian immigrants. If needed, Carrera will also help multilingual employees with English. At the same time, she’ll steer English-speaking employees who want to brush up on their foreign language skills in the right direction. A total 1,034 county employees speak 21 different languages, according to a survey done three years ago.

WHILE NON-NATIVE English speakers have lived in the county for a long time, their number has increased substantially over the past several years, prompting the county to move on the language access coordinator position. Figures from the U.S. Census show that the percentage of Fairfax County residents who report not speaking English "very well" has risen from 7.9 percent in 1990 to 13.2 percent in 2000.

“So many times people who have not attained fluency in English need help to access the county services that they need,” said Sarah Ince, the director of social services for the nonprofit group Reston Interfaith. “I see this at Reston Interfaith every day.”

At the same time, the number of languages spoken in the county has grown. Social workers at the county’s 222-0881 hotline have hired interpreters to handle calls in Spanish, Korean, Greek, Hindi, Urdu, Pujabi, Vietnamese, Somali and Farsi. If a client calls who speaks another language, social workers use a contractor language service to help that client.

“I believe the county’s tried very hard to provide translation services,” said Wimpey.

“It’s such a needed service,” agreed Ince whose offices are right next to those of the county’s hotline, making it possible for Reston Interfaith to temporarily borrow interpreters when necessary.

UP AGAINST this explosion of languages, Carrera said she has her work cut out for her.

“I sort of feel like a tiny little David,” she said, squaring off against a linguistic Goliath.

In her three months in the county executive’s office, Carrera has also had to sort out the bureaucratic intricacies of county government. The Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court was, she said, “a much smaller arena.”

Nevertheless, she said she loves working for the county and she loves recruiting people to come work for the county.

“It’s really a terrific challenge,” she said.