By Steve Neill Of The Catholic Virginian

The multiple problems Hispanic immigrant teenagers face when they arrive in the United States are the subject of an ongoing dialogue initiated by the Sacred Heart Center.

Four individuals who work with the Chesterfield County and Richmond Public Schools gathered for a panel discussion April 15 at the center and shared ideas.

“There needs to be some kind of space for the young people to express their experience, aspirations and frustrations and just to acclimate themselves,” said Mary Wickham, outgoing executive direcor of the Sacred Heart Center.

“Right now there is not really a place made for them to have the time to adjust.”

“When the newly arrived Latino teen first comes to his new home he probably knows little or no English and is living in a house or an apartment with some people he has never met before,” said Shearn Teconchuk, who teaches ESL (English as a Second Language) at Falling Creek Middle School in Chesterfield County.

“You’ve got a 14-year-old boy coming into his new home with younger siblings they’ve never seen before,” she said.

Most of the teens came to the U.S. in a group led by a person who is called a coyote who is paid a fee by the parents who are waiting here for their child.

“It’s so painful because they have this vision of life in America from watching TV — wealthy families, big homes, late model cars, name brand clothes,” Ms. Teconchuk said. “Then they get here and their father or mother is living in a trailer or small apartment with a girl friend or boy friend and children they’ve never seen before.

“The success of a blended family is low.”

“The other issue we see is that they are coming in middle school with teenage issues plus a defiant attitude toward their unknown parents and that spills over into the classroom as disruptive behavior,” she continued. “They disrupt the educational experience of the other students.

“They are frustrated because reality is setting in.”

Some of the youths feel bad about being left behind when a parent left their homeland and came to America without them. They may have brought a brother or sister with them.

“Why didn’t they take me?” a troubled youth might ask.

In many cases the middle school youth left behind had lived with his or her grandmother (abuela) who was lenient with them and had few restrictions.

“I experience this every day,” Ms. Teconchuk said. “I still enjoy the challenge of teaching the children and watch them learn English and become successful students.”

But she acknowledged that “some do not make it.”

While in the past most of the teens coming to South Richmond and Chesterfield County came from Mexico, today many are from El Salvador and Honduras. The primary concern for many of them is finding a job. They look for a job in landscaping, restaurants and cleaning services.

When asked if these same teens realize their future success is limited if they don’t attend school or they lack a high school diploma, Father Shay said this does not seem important to them.

“They just want to be away from the violence (in their home country),” he explained. “Having a job is paradise to them.”

Ms. Teconchuk agreed.

“The primary role is to get a job to put food on the table or send money back home,” she said, adding that education does not always seem to be a priority, but it is for some.

But for those who do attend school and want to learn, there can still be problems.

“A boy works through the night and then goes to school in the morning,” said Dalila Medrano, program coordinator at Sacred Heart Center.

The panelists agreed that the troubled young people need an outlet to vent about their situations. Their disruptive behavior can escalate if it is not addressed.

“We need mental health professionals with training in these situations,” Ms. Teconchuk said. “This would be a long-term project, lasting more than six months or even a year,” she added.

“These young people are coming in,” said Rocio Gonzalez Watson, moderator of the panel discussion. “We can’t ignore them any longer.”

Other panelists were Seth Knight, of RVA Future Center at Richmond’s Huguenot High School, who seeks to help high school juniors and seniors apply for college and seek finanical funding, and Ashleigh Ramos, who is bi-lingual parents resources liaison for Richmond Public Schools.

“This was an ice breaker for us just to get the conversation going,” Ms. Watson said. “We want to see principals and superintendents of schools join the conversation.”

The next panel discussion will be held on Friday, May 20, at 3 p.m. at Sacred Heart Center, 1400 Perry St. in South Richmond.

(For more information or to join the dialogue, contact Rocio Gonzalez Winston, 804-230-4399.)