The fifth and final story in our Neighbors series is about the journey of Heagin and Roger, long-time residents of Urbana, Illinois. The couple have faced difficulties in foreign countries and raised three children. The overarching message focuses on a common issue among the youth - drugs. See below for the transcription of their interview with voice overs from Crystal Kang.
The fourth story in our Neighbors series focuses on Max Abandja and Lester Berrio, a married couple from Shadow Wood Mobile Home Park in Champaign, Illinois. See below for the transcription of their interview, which includes voice overs from WILLconnect.org producer Crystal Kang, a senior in the College of Media at the University of Illinois. Production help by University of Illinois graduate student, Azra Halilović.
"My name is Lester Berrio. I'm from Colombia, South America. My name is Max. Last name is Abandja. I'm originally from Africa. The country of Gabon. Although I was born in France, but since my parents are from Africa. So I will say I'm from Africa."
When husband and wife Max and Lester moved to Shadow Wood in 2004, the neighborhood's racial and ethnic makeup was considerably more diverse. About half the families were Latino. Today, about 90 percent of the residents are Hispanic. Max describes the community as tight-knit.
"What I like about the neighborhood is the fact that, since it's very small, people know each other. And then they look out for each other. If someone notices anyone who doesn't belong to this neighborhood wandering around we automatically, or something suspicious, we will alert the other person."
Max and Lester have a small business cleaning houses. At the end of the work day, they're happy to lend a hand to neighbors who face challenges applying for jobs, understanding legal matters and dealing with medical issues because they're not native English speakers. They also share their faith by leading Bible studies.
"We help a lot of our neighbors because they need to make doctors' appointments. Sometimes, they don't know what the results of the hospital are. And so they come. They knock. Sometimes, they are pregnant and they have a pain somewhere in the tummy. So they want us to call the hospital to see if there is something they can do at home or they have to go over to the hospital."
The couple says residents would benefit from a community center and a storm shelter. Another concern? The rent keeps rising.
"You know we don't blame the front office because they're just working for the owners. But the owners should be also injecting money to improving the look of the neighborhood. And so far we don't see that."
"Yes, I agree that we really need a community salon or something. A community center. So that we can have gatherings here. And also, one thing is that this place is too dark at night. The neighbors don't have any front porch light and the city doesn't have any either."
While the crime rate has decreased in recent years, neighborhood safety is a concern for Shadow Wood residents. Most of the criminal activity comes from nearby, but outside the mobile home park.
Despite their concerns, Max says they're making the most of their living situation in hopes of a better tomorrow.
Living in a mobile home is not something that I would dream. Or something that we would do for the rest of our lives. In fact, we made the decision to move here because it was cheaper. And then so we can save and eventually move to a home but more like Florida. So we need to get something cheaper to make that happen. And also to get project done in South America. Help the families overseas: her family, my family. So that's the reason why we moved here.
Max Abandja and Lester Berrio of Champaign, Illinois.
For Illinois Public Media, I'm Crystal Kang.
Obesity is hitting Latino children in the United States harder than any other demographic, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Angela Wiley, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is trying to curb that trend in immigrant communities living in Illinois. She heads the Up Amigos project, which looks at how biological, social, and environmental factors affect rates of obesity and diabetes. Illinois Public Radio's Rachel Otwell talks with Wiley about her research.
Every year, thousands of migrant workers come to harvest food for Illinois while going hungry themselves. "You suffer a lot," said Abel Cintora, a farm worker and a member of the Illinois Migrant Council. Cintora was one of several people to speak recently at an Illinois Commission to End Hunger hearing in Rantoul. "One of the hardships is the fact that we never know if we are going to have a full paycheck," he said in Spanish to a room of about two dozen people . "A lot of times you're faced with the choice to pay rent or buy food." The Illinois Migrant Council estimates that at least 30,000 people come to work Illinois' farms each year for one purpose - to support their families. But their journey here is tough and they face many struggles along the way, experts said, including bad housing, exposure to pesticides and food insecurity. Food insecurity means that a person does not have constant access to enough food. "They are one of the most economically disadvantaged groups in the country," said Eloy Salazar, executive director of the Illinois Migrant Council. Wages depending on the weather and lack of consistent income coupled with rising transportation and food costs add up to "extreme situations" where both the farm workers and their children go hungry, he said. "The most vulnerable are the children whose nutrition is vital to their health and growth," Salazar said. Often times, families arrive to work with little money in their pocket and a long wait for their first paychecks, said Donna Camp, director of Urbana's Wesley Evening Food Pantry. "Transitions are a very difficult time," she said. "Transitions in your life between jobs and houses is when food insecurity happens." And where they live can make a difference too, Camp said. "Housing impacts food security," she said. "People living without adequate refrigerators and cooking facilities also impacts the kind of food (they can use). Our families need the kind of food they can turn into lunches. Families are going without lunch." Gov. Pat Quinn approved a bill to create the Illinois Commission to End Hunger last year as a way to address the state's hunger problems. The group will recommend solutions after it completes a series of hearings to survey food insecurity across the state. "The situation with farm workers of Illinois is getting bleaker and the food insecurity problem is getting worse," Salazar said. "There has to be some type of food security for them who come to harvest crops for the (state)." Organizations such as the Illinois Migrant Council offer migrant workers a quicker way to access food help, such as an expedited process for food stamps. But recent funding cuts mean that the council has less resources to reach people and in turn, more people go without. To help make ends meet, migrant workers often find second jobs, but even that is not enough. "It still becomes very hard to survive, especially if you have children," Cintora said. Possible solutions include a door-to-door service to deliver food boxes for those without transportation, more food stamp coordinators and longer hours at food pantries, experts said. "Through all of these years, I've noticed a big need for farm workers not having enough food to eat and to bring to the table," said Jose Garza, a farm worker and vice chairman of the Illinois Migrant Workers board. "It's pretty hard and it breaks my heart."
The next hearing of the Illinois Commission to End Hunger will take place on Tuesday, August 9, 2011 from noon until 3pm at the United Methodist Church in Peoria. The subject is childhood hunger.
Hear the Illinois Commission to End Hunger's session, "Migrant Farm Workers and Food Insecurity" by clicking the "Listen" link near the photos at the top of this story or listen live at 11 a.m. on Labor Day (Monday, September 5, 2011) on WILL radio, AM 580.
Every time the National Weather Service issues a storm warning, Heidi Zavaleta has to decide where to seek shelter. She can stay at home, go to the mall or drive to the nearest hospital.
Most of the time she simply stays at home.
Zavaleta lives in Shadow Wood Mobile Home Park, a trailer home community in northern Champaign. She knows that mobile homes are not safe during storms but staying at home is safer than what most of her neighbors do.
"Most of them just go underneath the interstate's bridge," she said.
Because the neighborhood lacks a storm shelter, residents of Shadow Wood are in danger every time a storm approaches. Whether they stay at home, drive to a hospital or climb up underneath the interstate's bridge, they put their lives at risk. They have no other options.
Shadow Wood Mobile Home Park has 255 occupied units and 850 residents, most of them Hispanics. It is located between Market Street and the Canadian National railroad tracks just south of Interstate 74 in Champaign. Not only does the neighborhood lack a storm shelter, the closest public building that could provide shelter and is open 24 hours a day is Carle Foundation Hospital located two miles south of Shadow Wood. Walking from Shadow Wood to the hospital could take up to 30 minutes.
Mary Blue, office manager of Shadow Wood, said she tries to orient tenants about storm safety when they first move to Shadow Wood, but that "even though you tell them that it is not safe, they think that [the interstate's bridge] is the best place for them, with concrete over the top of them."
The National Weather Service's website explained that overpasses are dangerous because they provide little to no protection against debris and because wind speeds can be higher underneath overpasses.
Jose Rodriguez, a Colombian immigrant who lives in Shadow Wood, said that during storms he takes his family to the mall. "When we moved, people who had lived here for many years told us 'the mall was a good place to seek shelter,'" he said. Market Place Mall is located just north of Shadow Wood, across the interstate.
Due to the large Spanish-speaking population at Shadow Wood, many residents don't rely on mass media warning systems, which are in English. Many residents said they don't find out about the proximity of a storm until the sirens go off.
Residents explained that when severe weather hits and the sirens go off, road conditions are often bad and visibility low, making it difficult to drive across the city to seek shelter. This is why many decide to stay at home, climb up the bridge or go to the nearby mall.
According to census data, only 6.1 percent of the United States population lives in mobile homes. But the National Weather Service data states that 43 percent of all U.S. deaths occurred in mobile homes. This puts mobile home residents at a higher risk of being injured during a tornado.
One reason trailer parks don't provide shelters is because no federal or state laws require park owners to provide storm shelters to tenants.
Greg Skaggs, a community development specialist for the city of Champaign, said that the city is aware of the situation at Shadow Wood and is looking for ways to create a shelter that residents could use in severe weather.
The neighborhood where Shadow Wood is located has been an area of concern for the city. To address the issues of the area, the city created the Bristol Park Neighborhood Plan, which was designed to improve housing, recreation, transportation and public safety. One of the long-term goals of the plan is to encourage the building of a storm shelter near Shadow Wood.
Skaggs said it could take up to 20 years to accomplish the long-term goals of the plan, but building a shelter could take even longerThe city has no funds to build a shelter or any plans to allocate money in the future. Even though the Bristol Park Neighborhood Plan mentions the need for a shelter, the city is "encouraging" the construction of a shelter instead of creating a project to built one.
The city hopes to find an organization or private donor that could provide the funds to create a storm shelter, Skaggs said.
The city owns a vacant lot just south of Shadow Wood that would fall within the 150 feet radius recommended for a storm shelter.
"We would be willing to use our land and if another organization would come in and want to set up their operations maybe we could donate our land, it could be a partnership that way," Skaggs said.
Skaggs said the city contacted the trailer park owner, who is willing to cooperate with the city or any other organization that wishes to build a shelter. But Blue said the trailer park doesn't have the money to invest in a storm shelter.
"We have a lot of things here in the park that needs to be done before we do anything like that," Blue said.
Shadow Wood is not the only trailer park community in Champaign County without a storm shelter. Residents of the Chief Illini Village, located in the corner of Interstate 74 and State Route 130, have to seek shelter elsewhere as well. Blue, a resident of the village, said that most of her neighbors stay at home but others seek shelter at the MEDCAT 911 building or at Carle Foundation Hospital.
As spring and summer approach, the risk of severe weather increases, and Champaign County is not a stranger to severe weather. The National Weather Service Forecast Office estimates that 60 tornados have made landfall in Champaign County since 1953. One of the strongest tornados recorded touched down in east Urbana in the spring of 1996. The tornado had wind speeds were between 158 and 206 mph, strong enough to lift a trailer home.
Residents choose to go to places that are not safe such as overpasses or grocery stores because they have not been informed about what to do when severe weather is present. Neither the city nor the trailer park administration provides Shadow Wood residents with information about how to handle a severe weather situation.
Rodriguez said that, in the two years he has been living in Shadow Wood, he has never seen or heard any type of information delivered to residents other than what gets passed around between neighbors. Neither Rodriguez nor Zavaleta has an emergency plan in case of severe weather.
Blue said not many residents ask for information about storm safety, but she tries to orient them every time she can.
"I have no idea where to send them and know they will be safe... If they come and ask I tell them to go to Carle," she said.
(With additional reporting from Jose Diaz)
Two years ago, Jose Rodriguez and his three daughters left their home in Ibague, Colombia, a city of about half a million people in the slopes of the Andes Mountains, 80 miles west of Bogota, the capital city, and headed north for Champaign.
They followed the girls' mother, from whom Rodriguez is separated. She came to Champaign a decade earlier after finding work in the area, eventually becoming a U.S. citizen and sponsoring Rodriguez, 38, and their daughters, ages 15, 12 and 7. Like their mother before them, the girls and Rodriguez have settled in the Shadow Wood Mobile Home Park on the 1600 block of North Market Street in Champaign.
"I like that it's very comfortable here," Rodriguez said, speaking through a translator on a recent afternoon at Suds City, the park's on-site Laundromat.
Driving in or out of Champaign on North Market Street, it's easy to overlook the 265-unit mobile home park, tucked between Market and the Canadian National Railway, just south of Interstate 74.
In the past two decades, this out-of-the-way neighborhood has undergone dramatic changes. It has gone from having a rough reputation to being a place that, residents, employees and police say, is relatively quiet and safe. Over the past decade, Its poverty rate has risen to 41 percent, according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau estimates.
But perhaps the most noticeable change is the wave of Hispanic residents, including Rodriguez and his daughters, who have moved into the park during the past 20 years.
In 1990, out of more than 600 residents in the Shadow area only about a dozen of were Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Today, there are 850 residents in the area, and about 600 of them - more than 70 percent of the population - are of Hispanic origin, according to new data from the 2010 census.
The increase has been particularly dramatic over the past decade. While the neighborhood's overall population increased by less than 50 percent from 2000 to 2010, the Hispanic population more than quadrupled, according to census data.
The Shadow Wood area now accounts for about 12 percent of the Hispanic population in the city of Champaign and about 6 percent in Champaign County. In 2000, it made up about 5 percent of the city's Hispanic population and about 3 percent of the county's.
Despite its improvements, Shadow Wood still faces a number of challenges.
In recent years, the percentage of area residents living below the poverty line appears to be on the rise, according to census estimates.
Many Shadow Wood residents are also isolated from their neighbors in the surrounding community by language barriers and a lack of public facilities in the area, said the Rev. Eugene Barnes, who runs Metanoia Centers, a community organization based a few blocks south of the mobile home park.
"It's not that there's a self-imposed exilic attitude from Shadow Wood," Barnes said. "They would love to be a part of what's going on in the community."
The lack of public facilities, such as a community center, is one of the issues addressed in Champaign's recently adopted long-term plan to revitalize the Bristol Park neighborhood, which includes Shadow Wood and the adjacent areas of Bristol Place and Garwood.
Mary Blue, Shadow Wood's office manager since 2002, said many working-class Hispanics have been attracted to the community in recent years because it safe and affordable. Residents purchase their homes and rent the lots on which they sit for $222 per month.
Heidi Zavaleta and her family were among the early part of this influx.
Zavaleta, 31, moved to Shadow Wood 10 years ago and has worked in the park's office for the past three years. She and her husband Juan Ramos, who works as a cook at the Champaign Country Club, decided to move there because it is an affordable place to live and own a home.
"I wanted to own my own place," said Zavaleta, a Mexico City native and mother of two. "I like the park . . . It's a nice neighborhood."
The exponential increase in Shadow Wood's Hispanic population is largely the result of word-of-mouth referrals. When homes are up for sale, residents tell their family, friends and co-workers who are looking for a place to live, Blue said.
Marc Lofman, who bought the park in 2004 for $3 million from longtime owner Warren Huddleston, said that's the way he likes to see things work.
"I believe we're doing a good job if we're getting a lot of referrals," Lofman, who is based in Chicago, said.
Sometimes, families or individuals who are new to the area will stay with someone they know until a mobile home becomes available.
When Rodriguez and his daughters first arrived, they stayed with another Colombian family who lives in the park. A few months later, a three-bedroom mobile home became available, and Rodriguez began the process of buying it.
Lofman, who has been in the manufactured-housing business since 1995, said he decided to purchase Shadow Wood because he saw it as an improving neighborhood.
That wasn't always the case, however.
Edward "Zig" Isaac, a former resident who is now in charge of maintenance for Shadow Wood, said that when he moved there in the late 1980s, many residents didn't feel safe leaving their windows open at night.
A short time later, Huddleston, who bought the park with Bud Parkhill in 1976 and became the sole owner 10 years later, took a more active role in the day-to-day operations, and things began to improve.
Huddleston began kicking out residents who were more than a year behind on their payments and replacing dilapidated homes with newer models. The park began attracting a "better clientele," Isaac said.
Huddleston died in June 2005, about a year after selling the park to Lofman.
Currently, there are only a handful of residents who regularly fail to pay their lot rent and other bills, Blue said.
Shadow Wood now runs criminal background checks on everyone who applies to live there and doesn't allow convicted felons to move into the community.
Lt. Jon Swenson, commander of the Champaign Police Department's north district, which includes the park, said this policy helps maintain a safe neighborhood.
"Mary and the employees up there do a good job pre-screening their tenants," Swenson said. "That's about as much as I can ask for."
From 2000 to 2010, Shadow Wood had fewer police incidents per resident than the adjacent neighborhoods of Bristol Place and Garwood, according to Champaign Police Department data.
"A lot of what we get called up there for is what I would call disorderly type behavior rather than criminal behavior," Swenson said. "No neighborhood is immune from crime."
Catherine Hobbs, 77, a longtime resident, said the area has been much safer since the late '90s, when the city demolished a nearby apartment complex that was a hotbed for drug sales.
"Problems usually came from the outside," she said.
The Green Apartments, formerly at 1311 and 1404 N. Market St., were "the focal point for criminal activity in the area, generating a significant amount of narcotics trafficking," according to city documents. The city purchased the properties in June 1998 and razed them a few months later.
These changes are part of what convinced Lester Berrio, 45, and her husband Max Abandja, 40, to purchase a home in Shadow Wood in 2004 after marrying the previous year.
They both have lived in Champaign for more than 20 years. Berrio, a native of Colombia, came to the area with her ex-husband, who had enrolled at the University of Illinois. Abandja also came to study at the UI, but didn't finish his degree because political unrest in Gabon, his family's West African nation, caused his scholarship funding to be cut off, he said.
Berrio and Abandja both used to think of Shadow Wood as an unsafe place. But when they began visiting Hispanic families in the neighborhood for church outreach, they noticed things had changed.
"Shadow Wood is not what it used to be like," Berrio said.
When a friend was looking to sell her home there, they decided to move in. They bought the home for $1,000 and put in a lot of work.
"The only thing that worked was the heater," said Berrio, whose son William from her first marriage has since moved into the park as well.
Berrio and Abandja work as translators for Carle Foundation Hospital and the Carle Clinic Association, and they also own a janitorial-services company. Much of their business involves cleaning apartment buildings on and around the UI campus between tenants during the summer months.
While the character of the neighborhood is improving, many of its residents still live in poverty, and that number appears to be increasing.
About 30 percent of Shadow Wood area residents were living below the poverty level at the time of the 2000 U.S. census, compared to about 22 percent citywide.
More recently, from 2005 through 2009, about 41 percent of area residents, on average, were living below the poverty line, compared to about 27 percent citywide, according to the most recent estimates from the Census Bureau.
Many of the parks residents work at local restaurants, hotels, stores and factories.
Rodriguez, the recent immigrant from Colombia, works full time at the Walmart in Savoy, cleaning the store on the overnight shift. He started out at $7.25 an hour and has worked his way up to earning about $10 an hour.
It is an improvement over his situation in Colombia, where he worked 14-hour days at a factory for Fleischmann's, the maker of yeast and other food products, he said.
"I like my job," he said.
In recent years, several organizations have stepped in to help meet the needs of Shadow Wood residents. Various groups have offered homework help for children and taught English classes for adults in a central unit owned by the park and commonly referred to as town hall.
More than a dozen kids who live in Shadow Wood participate in an after-school program at Champaign's Booker T. Washington Elementary School that pairs them with volunteer tutors from the UI. A professor in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science started the program in 2006 after parents from the mobile home park expressed concerns that their children were falling behind in school.
While the program, called Student Opportunities for After-School Resources, or SOAR, is now open to students throughout Washington School, Shadow Wood residents still make up about a third of its participants, said Lila Moore, volunteer program coordinator for the UI's Center for Education in Small Urban Communities.
Barnes, of Metanoia Centers, has helped bring mobile food pantries to the neighborhood and organized a back-to-school program to provide school supplies to children whose families could not afford them.
The city's Bristol Park neighborhood plan also addresses some of the need.
One of the long-term goals identified in the plan is the creation of a family resource center, which would provide after-school programs, job training and other services for residents of Shadow Wood, Bristol Place and Garwood.
One of the short-term goals is establishing block-watch groups in the three communities that can help monitor public safety in the area. So far, the idea hasn't generated a lot of interest from Shadow Wood residents, said Greg Skaggs, a community development specialist for the city who helped create the neighborhood plan.
"It's been a challenge," Skaggs said. "People tend to keep to themselves."
Over the years, the East Central Illinois Refugee Mutual Assistance Center has helped more than 100 families who live in Shadow Wood. The group began in the early 1980s to help refugees from Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia, some of whom moved to the mobile home park. The group has since expanded its mission to assist immigrants who are not refugees.
Guadalupe Abreu, a bilingual outreach counselor who has been with the refugee center for 12 years, said some Hispanic families who live in the park sometimes have conflicts with the management because they are unfamiliar with the rules.
"To live in a mobile park is always different because you live under their rules, even though you think you own your own home," Abreau said.
A common complaint is that the park issues tickets to residents if someone who is coming to visit them is seen speeding through the park's private streets, she said
Because residents rent the lots on which their trailers sit, they are bound by the terms of their leases. Abreau said she encourages Spanish-speaking residents who move into Shadow Wood to bring their leases to the refugee center for translation so that they can be clear on all the rules.
Some Hispanic residents feel as though they are not treated equally but are afraid to voice their complaints for fear of raising questions about their immigration status, she said.
Rodriguez, who is a legal permanent resident, said this has not been his experience. A few times, management has mistakenly sent him a letter saying he missed a payment, but when he shows his receipts, they promptly correct the error.
"They listen to us," he said.
Residents said they are generally happy with Shadow Wood because of its affordability and its location near the commercial centers of North Prospect Avenue and North Neil Street. But they said they do see some opportunities for improvement.
Several residents said they wish the park had a larger playground for kids and some type of community center that could be rented out for parties or other events. The lack of lighting at night is also a concern, residents said.
But one of the major concerns is the lack of emergency shelter during tornadoes and other severe weather.
Lofman, the owner, said he also would like to install more street lights but doing so would be expensive. Because the park is private property, the city can't pick up any of the bill for lights as it could in other neighborhoods.
While he's happy in Shadow Wood for now, Rodriguez said he doesn't want to stay forever. He's seen other Colombian families move out of the park to bigger homes, and that's the path he wants to follow.
Although it will take him about five more years to finish paying for his mobile home, he tries to set aside money for a down payment on a house somewhere in Champaign.
"There's always a little bit left," he said. "I don't know how long it will take, but, as soon as I can, I will buy a house."
He is currently taking English classes at St. John's Catholic Newman Center on the U of I campus. By learning English, he hopes to earn a promotion at Walmart and eventually become a U.S. citizen, he said.
"We have done really well here for two years," Rodriguez said. "There are a lot of people who come here and think it's going to be really easy. We have worked very hard.
Family reunification accounts for nearly two-thirds of lawful permanent migration to the United States: it's the largest avenue by which people receive admission to the country. Yet, family separation remains a part of daily living for countless immigrants. A legislative effort in Congress focuses on family unity as a key component of immigration policy. Illinois Public Radio's Sean Powers examines the issues facing lawmakers and families.
A new daycare and clinic recently opened for the season in Rantoul. It caters mostly to children of migrant workers, but it's open to anyone whose immediate family works in agriculture. The Multicultural Community Center is the largest of its kind in Illinois. As Illinois Public Media's Sean Powers reports, the staff tries to make the transition of migrating easier for the children of migrant workers.
The U.S. Senate is expected to consider ending the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which bans gays from openly serving in the armed services. But there's another issue that many gay rights supporters are pushing. Illinois Public Media's Sean Powers reports on the political deadlock over legislation to extend immigration rights to same-sex binational couples.