Gabriela Peden reading to children pre-pandemic. Photo by Dean Guernsey/The Bulletin.

Central Oregon

Community Voices: Gabriela Peden, Central Oregon Latino Partnership Program

Gabriela Peden runs the Juntos Aprendemos program in Central Oregon, which prepares three- to five-year old children and their parents to acquire early literacy and school readiness skills necessary to overcome the barriers faced by Spanish-speaking minors. As a Central Oregon Latino Partnership Program member and Conexiones Summit event committee member, Gabriela is one of more than 1,600 OCF volunteers across the state.

Tell us a bit about your background and your work.

I have the honor of running Juntos Aprendemos. When it started here in Central Oregon three years ago it was a brand new program for us — it has existed in Portland already, Latino Network has Juntos Aprendemos there — I was part of a work group here, Better Together, that was looking at what programs were out there for students before they start kindergarten, because we knew there was a gap in kindergarten assessment and third grade reading levels. I said, “I want to do this work.” I started as a coordinator. I was the first one to get to know the program, so I knew all the details. I ended up transitioning later into a supervisor role and hiring staff to support the work.

Today I oversee the program. My day-to-day role is looking at services that are provided, working with the programs in Bend and Redmond. We want to expand into Jefferson County. We work with each school district. We have a team of 11 people including volunteers and staff. I also manage the budget and do all of the grant writing.

I have been in this community for a really long time. I got involved in volunteering in programs that service the Latino community at a very young age. When I started college, I took a job at the public library as a Latino services specialist and started meeting more people in the community who were providing services. I realized I was happy working any job serving the Latino community.

How has the pandemic affected your work?

This year we will be starting in-person, with a lot of regulations. We know that it is extremely crucial for us to be in person with these kids as much as we can. It’s really hard to get a three-year-old to stay still in front of a screen when they don’t know the person on the other end. There is  a lot of connection building that happens in community, that’s not happening virtually.

Everyone regardless of race demographics, status, class — everyone — had a rough year. I think that the Latino community was impacted differently, because there were resources and information that were not available to our families right away. There was a language gap. There was a lack of information going out to families. There were funds available that depended on a family’s legal status  that some couldn’t access, and that was rough to see.

Juntos Aprendemos classroom

Directly with families that we worked with at Juntos Aprendemos last year, we did rental assistance, food assistance, and thanks to OCF, some childcare assistance. We got all of our families Chromebooks so they could connect to our program. We created workbooks for them so they could access other programs more fully. Because we’re a small program, and we still have really close connections with families, we got to hear the stories like “We haven’t worked for four months, and our power bill is $1,800 now.”

We are not a direct service program. We really provide early learning, early literacy, engaging with families and parents and making them the first and most important teacher for their children. It was a decision I had to make, and say “We’re changing how we’re doing things this year because of the need,” and so we did. We applied for multiple grants to be able to provide those services. We gave out gift cards, we gave out food vouchers.

A lot of the difficult things families were dealing with, they were dealing with before the pandemic. They were struggling before the pandemic made things much worse. But it also affected everyone else somehow, whether it was working from home, or not being able to see your family. So everybody was like “how can we support this?” My hope is that as Covid improves, or we adapt to a life with Covid, that this type of support for our minority families doesn’t end. The disparities are not going to leave. It’s going to take years of recovery for many of these families.

How did you get involved with OCF?

Many years ago somebody who was really involved in our community got an OCF award and I was invited to the event. When the Latino Partnership Program started, I came in as a member six years ago, and it’s been helpful to connect with other people in the community. Also Conexiones is one of my favorite events because we were able to get a lot of people from the community in one room. It helps with partnership building.

You’re also involved in planning the statewide Conexiones Summit event on November 1 and 2 this year. Tell us about your role and what we can expect from the virtual Conexiones event this year.

We’re trying to see what pieces we had in person last time we can have virtually, while remembering that we’re all still exhausted and trying to build connections as best we can.

National Hispanic Heritage Month takes place from September 15-October 15. How does this carry meaning for you?

Being Latina and being born in this country, Hispanic Heritage Month is probably the moment in the year I can identify and connect most with.

It’s really a time to honor everyone. It’s not an independence day, it’s not specific to one culture. That’s one thing I love is the diversity of cultures coming together at this one time. Our program is culturally inclusive through the entire year. We take advantage of this month, even more, to talk about other countries that we might not get to see very often here.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

We are extremely grateful to the support OCF has given us. I’m a person who always tries to be humble and thankful. The impact that OCF has had for our families is tremendous. I always welcome people to learn more about our program, because it is unique, that it’s run in Spanish and that is culturally specific. All of our staff is Latino, Latina, Latinx, Spanish-speaking – me, everyone. We are changing the odds by hiring parents into these roles. It’s a different culture we’re building in Central Oregon. I think that is something to celebrate, to share with others.