The Cov’s changing face

(Photo 1): A bilingual staffer at Be Concerned: The People’s Pantry explained food distribution procedures during the pandemic last summer. (Photo provided).

 (Photo 2): Covington has seen an influx of Hispanic-themed small businesses, including Taqueria San Miguel restaurant.

During Hispanic Heritage Month, City acknowledges,

embraces growing community

COVINGTON, Ky. – There’s a pulse that’s intensifying throughout Covington – a liveliness or vivacidad that some would call la onda nueva – and the evidence is everywhere:
  • The brightly colored signs signaling the opening of new taquerias, cantinas, and bodegas.
  • A doubling in Covington’s Census numbers for families of what the government calls “Latino” heritage.
  • The dual language alphabet signs erected on sidewalks by the City’s Read Ready Covington early literacy program.
  • A 10-fold increase in families seeking services at a relatively new resource center called Esperanza.
  • A monthly event dedicated to Hispanic families at Be Concerned: The People’s Pantry.
  • And the decision by Covington Independent Schools to expand its English Language Learner staff to try to keep up with an ever-diversifying enrollment in which – incredibly – more than one-fifth of students identify as “Hispanic.”
Some of that “evidence,” especially school enrollment numbers, is surprising to many people.
But with the beginning last week of national Hispanic Heritage Month, City officials say it’s a perfect time to not only recognize but also embrace the diversifying nature of Covington’s population and business community. Officials say the dramatic increase in residents from countries like Mexico and Guatemala infuse this community’s commerce and culture with a palpable energy and fits neatly within the inclusive narrative the City has long tried to foster.
“That’s one of the cool things about living in an urban area, and in particular Covington,” Mayor Joe Meyer said. “This isn’t a homogenous community by any stretch of the imagination. We have people of different income levels, we have churches of many different denominations, we host a massive reunion for black families every year at one of our parks, we’re the center of the region’s Pride celebrations and have crosswalks painted to support the LGBTQ community, and we offer incentives to support entrepreneurs, including those in our minority communities.” 
It’s a synergistic dynamic.
Reid Yearwood, executive director of the Esperanza Latino Center, a nonprofit resource center on West Pike Street, says the City makes a concerted effort toward inclusivity.
“They work really hard to be inclusive and do as much as they possibly can for the community,” Yearwood said about the City’s efforts to help families succeed. “We’re really grateful to the City of Covington (and many other organizations).”
Heritage month
National Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, was created to recognize Hispanic/Latine heritage and contributions in the United States, where 18.7 percent of the population identified as “Latino” on the 2020 Census. That population accounted for 51.1 percent of the country’s growth in the last 10 years.
Why the mid-month celebration? Because Sept. 15 and 16 mark the dates of independence from Spain for Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Mexico.
(SEMANTICS NOTE: “Hispanic” refers to people who speak Spanish or who are descendants of Spanish-speaking countries. “Latino” refers to geography, the Latin American countries including Mexico, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. Sometimes the terms are used interchangeably. “Latinx” and increasingly “Latine” are sometimes used to avoid the gender-specific nature of “Latino” and “Latina.”)
Increasing numbers
Preliminary numbers from the 2020 Census show that 2,868 “Latino” residents call Covington home, representing about 7 percent of the City’s overall population. That is almost double from 2010.
Yearwood attributes that trajectory to word of mouth and the positive experience of new residents.
“They report back and say, ‘this is a tremendous place to live – we’ve got community here, we’ve got restaurants, we’ve got tiendas, and it’s not a super-high cost of living. Covington’s the best,’ ” Yearwood said.
Likewise, when you do good work, word spreads. And that’s how most families from counties like Mexico and Guatemala find their way to Esperanza.
The one-stop shop
Northern Kentucky University professors Leo Calderon and Irene Encarnación founded Esperanza in 2019 to serve that growing community.
With support from entities like the Horizon Community Fund, the organization is a vital resource in moving lives forward, Yearwood said. Fifty percent of families who come through its door are walk-ins – Covington residents – so its visibility on West Pike is a key factor. Other clients, he said, come by way of inroads made with local Hispanic/Latine-owned businesses. 
“We get people every day who say they came from this restaurant or that business, and that they referred them to us,” Yearwood said. “We’re building relationships.”
Esperanza’s One-Stop Bilingual Service Desk helps families navigate language barriers, fill out applications, acquire diapers, and access food assistance. The astounding growth in the numbers of families it serves demonstrates the Center’s value.
“In 2019, we were doing probably 20 to 39 cases a month, and this year we’re over 400 a month – every single month,” Yearwood said.
Particular needs warrant new programs, like diaper assistance: “We’ve got 200 babies enrolled in diaper assistance, getting free diapers each month, and we’ll expand that to 300 as we move into 2022.”
Yearwood aims for efficiency.
“My goal is to not duplicate service,” he said. “If someone’s doing a service, let’s point them there. I want to figure out what’s needed and where we can fit in and build a service.”
As an example: next month, Esperanza will host its first business workshop, providing information and resources for its clients who are looking to start their own business.
A community of care
Esperanza’s ability to serve in the numbers it does comes down to building local partnerships, Yearwood said. Agencies like Sweet Cheeks Diaper Bank and The Care Closet in Newport make a massive impact, he said.
Another powerful partner is Covington’s Be Concerned: The People’s Pantry.
“We have a lot of Latinx families here,” Be Concerned Executive Director Andy Brunsman said about its Lewisburg neighborhood location. The challenge was that Brunsman was the only one at Be Concerned who spoke Spanish, and at that his skills were rudimentary.
“It’s hard to be a welcoming environment when nobody speaks the language,” Brunsman said.
But last spring, when the agency was forced to move to a drive-up, “car-hop model” to distribute its food during the pandemic, Be Concerned hired a temporary bilingual staffer to explain the appointment process to Spanish-speaking families to ensure that they were able to access emergency food. That staffer worked through the summer.
But Brunsman wanted to establish Be Concerned on a more lasting basis as a safe and welcoming place for Hispanic/Latine families, so he reached out to Yearwood last October.
By November, the first “ESL Night” (for “English as Second Language”) was launched. It’s now a monthly event. It works like this: Brunsman gives Yearwood a food menu (Be Concerned is a “choice” pantry.) Yearwood translates it, shares it with families, and takes their orders. Be Concerned then fills those orders.
As an added touch, Be Concerned makes sure its pantry contains “culturally appropriate” food on ESL Night, such as peppers, corn flour, avocados, and cilantro, Brunsman said.
“There’s a sense of community that you can feel on Esperanza partnership night,” Brunsman said. “There’s an electricity that comes into the building when Reid and his crew are here. It’s an exciting thing to be part of.”
Separately, Be Concerned worked with Northern Kentucky Harvest to provide 130 backpacks and school materials to Hispanic/Latine children in August as part of a bigger event called Backpacks & Breakfast.
“It’s a tremendous partnership,” Yearwood said. “They’ve done so much for us. You talk about the heavy hitters. I can’t think of anyone more than Be Concerned and the Horizon Fund that just ask, ‘how can we help you?’”
Changing classrooms
A stone’s throw from Esperanza is John G. Carlisle Elementary School, which like its partnering sites has a growing Hispanic/Latine enrollment. 
Current demographic data for Covington Independent Schools shows that 21.2 percent of the students enrolled sometime during the 2020-21 school year identify as Hispanic. The schools identified 517 English Language Learners (EL), students to end the year in spring 2021 and had 190 immigrant newcomers – students with less than three years in the country.
The school district addressed the growth by increasing its English Learner staff, officials there said. There were nine EL teachers, three EL Instructional Assistants, and three Interpreters for the 2020-21 school year. But in May, the Covington Board of Education voted 5-0 to add four additional EL teachers and two additional interpreters for the school year under way, bringing total staff members working with the English Learner population to 21.
The investment in students is communitywide.
Horizon Community Fund support made it possible for Esperanza to provide students four hours of weekly tutoring over the summer.
And a generous gift from AT&T to the City’s Read Ready Covington literacy program will allow it to partner with Esperanza to help Spanish-speaking parents study for the GED by addressing the need for prep materials in their native language. The GED is available in the Spanish language, but prep materials and instruction in Spanish are more difficult to obtain. Yearwood said they plan to have the program available this fall.
By helping Spanish-speaking adults complete their education, it will bring them one more step toward furthering opportunities for them and their family.
Literacy initiative
Given the diverse nature of Covington’s school population, a significant number of families and children who participate in the Read Ready Covington program come from Mexico, Guatemala, or other Central American and South American countries.
To engage those families in their children’s education and encourage them to participate, RRC has made sure that its brochures, newsletters, flyers, and even its “landscape learning” activities (such as its alphabet tour signs) are bilingual, said Mary Kay Connelly, who oversees the program.
“We recognize how vital it is for families to have access to quality bilingual literacy resources,” Connelly said.
Ready access to literacy experiences – especially using the free apps that RRC makes available – help children during early development, which is vital for success in school.
“With Footsteps2Brilliance digital literacy programs available in Spanish and English, families can use their own language and learn new English vocabulary while also preparing their toddlers and preschoolers at home,” Connolly said. “In fact, all children benefit from exposure to multiple languages.”
Taxes and food
Another agency in the trenches is The Center for Great Neighborhoods of Covington, a non-profit that works in the area of community organizing.
CGN has an attorney on staff who is bilingual and helps families address tax issues and even prepare their tax returns. In the last year, some 30 percent of those returns involved Spanish-speaking families, said Sarah Allan, CGN’s program director for economic development.
To encourage entrepreneurship in the Hispanic and other minority communities, CGN also has run several sessions of its FreshLo Chef Fellowship, a food-oriented economic initiative funded by the Kresge Foundation. The program included both classroom time focused on the financial and logistical side of opening a business and kitchen time with hands-on culinary instruction.
Several graduates have gone on to open food-oriented businesses in the area.
Covington’s changing demographics have required the agency to be nimble and flexible with its programs and services, Allan said.
“We’re an organization that tries to identify a community’s needs and assets, and we strive to meet those needs where they exist as well as leverage opportunities that build on exciting changes, such as Covington’s growing Hispanic community,” she said.
Small businesses in The Cov
The Kauffman Index, which measures entrepreneurial activity in the United States, showed that almost every year from 1996 through 2020, Latine were more likely than any other demographic group to open their own business.
The City’s Economic Development Department has experienced that surge firsthand.
In the last couple of years alone, Covington has celebrated the opening of a variety of restaurants and other businesses operated or managed by Latine entrepreneurs, including Taqueria San Miguel, San Miguel grocery, Zapata Cantina, Restaurante Chapin, and OLLA Taqueria Gutierrez.
The latter, owned by Sergio Gutierrez, is a second-generation business, branching out from his family’s nearby Gutierrez Deli. (To recognize the longtime deli’s many contributions to the character of Covington, in May the City gave it one of the five inaugural “Authenti-CITY Awards” created to mark National Economic Development Week.)
To encourage more such entrepreneurship, the City changed the application for its Small Business Program incentives to give “bonus points” for businesses owned by minorities, women, and military veterans.
“Especially with our neighborhood businesses, we want establishments that reflect and serve the community they’re in,” Economic Development Director Tom West said. “Plus, the more diverse our businesses are, the more resilient that makes our local economy.”
The Covington Business Council has adopted a similar philosophy.
“In the past year we’ve increased the number of black, Hispanic, women, and LGBTQ+ owned businesses whose companies have become CBC members, from virtually nothing to now approximately 8 percent of our total membership,” said Pat Frew, the organization’s executive director “It’s a far cry from what we’d like to see, but in our case it represents great progress.”
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