In 2002, Sister Mary Rita Rohde returned to Sunnyside from her 5-year term of leadership for the Sisters of the Holy Names in Montreal, QC, Canada. Because she was granted a few month’s sabbatical, she began a discernment process to determine what her next ministry would be. S. Mary Rita interviewed 80 people individually and in small groups who worked with low-income people in the Lower Yakima Valley, asking the question, “What is the greatest unmet need among low-income women and children in the Lower Yakima Valley (Sunnyside, Grandview, Mabton, Granger)?” The data from these interviews were shared with other Sisters of the Holy Names in the Valley and together they prayed and discerned that the persons most in need were immigrant women. The Sisters suggested that S. Mary Rita start an educational ministry for immigrant women. That led to the founding of Nuestra Casa as a 501(c)3 non-profit.
The Leadership Team of the Sisters of the Holy Names in Washington approved this new ministry and granted the money needed for the first year’s activities, as well as half of the funding needed for the second year. A Board of Directors and a Development Committee were established.
A Mission Statement was drawn up and approved, and planning began for the first program offerings which happened in January 2003.
Our First Home
At that time the Pastor of the Sunnyside Catholic Church generously offered to let Nuestra Casa occupy the house next to the former St. Joseph’s School and to let us use the school’s unoccupied classrooms for our classes.
Early ESL Programs
Sr. Mary Rita teaching English
From the beginning we did not want to duplicate services that were offered by other agencies or logically should be offered by other agencies. We also sought out agencies and organizations with whom we could collaborate. Early meetings with the President of Yakima Valley Community College and with the Superintendent of the Sunnyside School District resulted in those two agencies collaborating to offer English as a Second Language classes for adults. The college provided the teachers and the school district provided the space and childcare.
Nuestra Casa staff helped recruit participants and closely followed the program to be sure that the immigrants were attending classes and learning English. Because so many immigrants stopped attending those classes they were ended by the college and school district. Then, we asked local churches to consider offering evening ESL classes taught by volunteers in their churches. Such classes were held at the Sunnyside United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church, Seventh Day Adventist Church and Our Savior’s Lutheran Church. At about the same time Nuestra Casa began offering morning ESL classes and established a Montessori style pre-school for the preschoolers of women who attended our classes at the old St. Joseph’s school.
Driver’s License Classes
We learned early that many adult immigrants did not have driver’s licenses, so we collaborated with a police officer from Mabton to offer evening driver’s license classes in Spanish. Since there is no public transportation in the Lower Yakima Valley, until we offered these classes hundreds of immigrants were driving without licenses. After a few years, the Mabton police officer could no longer teach these classes for us so we collaborated with the Sunnyside Police department to teach the classes at Nuestra Casa.
Health was another area of concern for immigrant women. We collaborated with the Yakima Valley Farmworkers Clinic in Toppenish through which they paid doctors to come to Nuestra Casa in Sunnyside to offer workshops on specific topics such as cancer. Later, we collaborated with the Farmworkers Clinic to offer parenting classes about child development to immigrant parents. Other health related offerings included diabetes testing and education given by a volunteer nurse; exercise classes led by a volunteer; nutrition and cooking classes offered by various volunteers, including cooking classes held at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church.
Women’s Justice Circles
For several years we collaborated with the Intercommunity Peace and Justice Center in Seattle in facilitating “Women’s Justice Circles”. The very detailed materials for facilitating these Circles were in Spanish so the process led to some significant learning by immigrant women. Dozens of women participated in these Circles which taught them how to advocate for themselves, for their families, and for their community. One significant issue that immigrant women chose to work on was eliminating the state’s WASL exam which their children had to take and which they noted made some of their children physically sick because of worrying about the test. Their action included meeting with the Sunnyside School District Superintendent and Assistant Superintendent, the Sunnyside School Board, State Representatives in Olympia and the State Superintendent of Schools. This action by local immigrant women, in concert with other groups in the State, led to the replacement of the WASL with a much shorter and less stressful state test.
Because so many immigrants had a difficult time with the whole process of becoming a citizen, Nuestra Casa began offering Citizenship classes taught by a volunteer who also helped with the citizenship application process. Eventually, we hired a teacher for the citizenship classes because of the great need.
Five-Year Anniversary Celebration
In 2008, Nuestra Casa celebrated our fifth year of serving immigrants with a special dinner at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church. In attendance were Nuestra Casa Board members, Development Committee members, staff, and donors.
Learning to Arrange Flowers
Because so many immigrant adults did not know about services and systems in the Valley, Nuestra Casa took up the task of learning about resources and sharing that with participants. That has led to a steady stream of adults coming to Nuestra Casa for various referral services.
Ten-Year Anniversary Celebration
Our 10th year of serving immigrants was celebrated with a special dinner at the Sunnyside Presbyterian Church in 2013. This festive occasion brought together Nuestra Casa participants, donors, Board and committee members, staff, and several Sisters who have supported Nuestra Casa. Special “Gracias Awards” were presented to Dick and Barbara Golob for their generous financial support and for Dick’s service as a Board member, to Holy Names Sisters Ann Pizelo and Linda Riggers for the Sisters financial support to establish Nuestra Casa, and to Dominican Sister Judy Byron for her service on our Board and for the Adrian Dominican financial support.
In 2012, Sister Mary Rita thought it was time to end her tenure as the Director of Nuestra Casa, but to continue teaching English. Esperanza Lemos was hired to be Assistant Director for several months and then moved into being the Executive Director in 2013. During this time a contract was made with the Sunnyside School District for Nuestra Casa to teach evening ESL classes in one of the local schools. Because of Nuestra Casa’s success at engaging and teaching immigrant adults, those evening classes continue at Nuestra Casa with the support of the School District.
Sunnyside United Methodist Church
New Home at Sunnyside United Methodist Church
In 2015, Nuestra Casa moved to the Sunnyside United Methodist Church and occupied the whole second floor of the educational wing of the church. This new space fit our needs very well with one classroom set up as a Montessori preschool, one classroom as an office for the three staff and volunteers, and space that is flexible enough to make five classrooms or two large rooms.
We are proud that Nuestra Casa has become a household name in our tight-knit communities. However, this does not mean our job is done. We are always striving to find new ways and partners to help support our efforts in educating the immigrant community.
Many community members, individuals, organizations and businesses have stepped forward to partner with Nuestra Casa. Assisting and participating with us in different types of events has helped us become attuned to the ever-changing needs of our community.
So, next time you see us at an event, stop by and chat. We’d love to listen to you.