Non-profit News

CornerStone Initiative: Every Face Is a Neighbor

A 35805 resident and his baby girl attend a recent community meeting.

Twelve years ago, Luis Porras came down from New York to visit his brother in Huntsville. One day, he was hanging out at his brother’s home while his brother was out, and some people rang the doorbell. They were frantic. A woman they knew needed a Spanish-to-English translator to help her understand what was happening to her son. He had been admitted to the hospital with a high fever — high enough to make him hallucinate — and the mother didn’t understand what the doctors were telling her.

Luis dropped everything and went to help the woman. For nine hours, he sat with a mother he just met and helped her comprehend the medical jargon. Before he took that trip to Huntsville, Luis had been asking God where he was needed. With the ringing of his brother’s doorbell that day, Luis finally got his answer. He was needed at Huntsville Hospital.

In New York, doctors and nurses were used to people speaking languages other than English. They had plenty of translators available at the hospital. But in Alabama at that time, there were no translators in the area hospitals. Children, sometimes very young children, were responsible for translating for their parents — ultimately putting serious medical situations in the hands of kids.

When he returned to New York after visiting his brother, Luis told his wife, Luz Marie, everything that happened — about the great need for translators in Huntsville. How he knew this was what God wanted him to do. Luz Marie agreed, so they quit their jobs, packed up and came to Huntsville for a new life.

You might think this story ends predictably — Luis moves to Huntsville, immediately gets hired at the hospital and makes a great living working normal hours helping people understand some of the harder English words. After all, translators can earn up to $40 an hour in the private sector.

But that’s not the kind of person Luis is. He doesn’t believe in charging people for help. Instead of getting one job at the hospital, he got hired on the night shifts at three other jobs, ultimately working seven days a week.

You see, working nights frees up his days to volunteer at Huntsville Hospital.

“I’m blessing everybody,” Luis said. “They call me every single day to help them. That’s why I work at the night time, because I have time to do what I love in the daytime.”

With a spirit like that, it’s not hard to believe Luis is one of the newest board members for CornerStone Initiative, a nonprofit devoted to helping people in the 35805 neighborhood. They work to break the cycle of dependence and poverty through education, enrichment and employment.

Luis is originally from Guatemala but moved to New York as a child. He met his wife, Luz Marie, in school. She’s originally from Mexico, but they both received their U. S. citizenship. Luz Marie is a tiny woman with dark skin and hair and a thick Hispanic accent. Luis likes to mess with strangers by telling them she’s from England and then keeping a straight face while they look confused. Eventually he laughs and reveals the joke.

Community Meetings

For years, CornerStone Initiative had been hosting community meetings to hear from area neighbors, but only a handful of people usually came. Debbi Akers, the executive director for CornerStone Initiative, had the idea to move the meeting location. They had been hosting the meetings at the Oscar Mason Center, but those meetings weren’t drawing anyone from the Alyndale community neighborhood in Huntsville’s Westside. They knew it wasn’t possible to hear from five people and expect to change a whole neighborhood. They wondered: Were the Alyndale residents feeling left out? Did they even know CornerStone was there for them?

They were about to find out.

Debbi gathered some neighbors who had shown an interest in bringing their community together – leaders like Luis and Luz Marie, Donna, Betty, Jamye, Crissy, and Keousha — for an afternoon meeting at Donna’s house.

“The beautiful thing is that they took over,” Debbi said. “They planned the meeting … That’s what we aim for. That’s our goal — that ownership of indigenous leaders.”

Luis and Luz Marie were quick to jump in. While CornerStone does have a small budget for food at these events, the neighbors insisted CornerStone only supply the hot dogs. They wanted rest of the food to be provided by the other neighbors. Debbi also offered to have CornerStone volunteers cook and serve the food, but that wasn’t an option either. The neighbors wanted everything to be done by the residents of the community.

“People who come to this meeting need to look around and know that every face they see is a neighbor,” Luis told Debbi.

That’s the ownership CornerStone is looking for. It’s all about neighbors taking responsibility for their community. They want members of the community to get out and know each other. When something needs to be done, they want the 35805 residents to pull together and get it done.

That first group of leaders went around inviting people to the meeting. One by one, they knocked on doors and handed out flyers. It paid off, too. There were almost 50 people at the next community meeting. The conversations that evening were rich and became sprinkled with offers of neighbors helping neighbors. Women who loved children and stayed home all day were there volunteering to help working parents with childcare. Men who worked in construction offered to help with home projects.

Luz Marie said she didn’t even know her neighbors before she got involved in CornerStone Initiative, but now she thinks of them like family.

The next community meeting drew even more people out.almost the same number. On that first, cool Friday evening — well, the first one that wasn’t unbearably hot — there were more than 60 people gathered in the front yard of one of the 35805 homes. Black, white, Hispanic and Vietnamese neighbors greeted each other. People in wheelchairs went through the buffet line right between able-bodied folks. Former professional wrestlers ate alongside landscapers and waitresses.

Safe Spaces

One thing concerning all the neighbors is the number of cars speeding through the neighborhood. Keep in mind, this is a place where boys ride bikes in the streets while girls chase bubbles in the front yards. It’s where AJ, at only 6 years old, volunteers to pray every time there’s an opportunity. Kids are at the center of this neighborhood, and keeping them safe is the number one priority.

“Some people, they like to speed, and we have children, so we worry about accidents,” said Luis, a father of two sons who love to play outside.

Some of the neighbors are spearheading a campaign to get speed bumps put in the neighborhoods. At the time of publication, the neighbors had written up a formal petition and were beginning to go door to door for signatures.

The families of Alyndale are encouraged by the employment and educational opportunities that CornerStone seeks to bring to their community. However, most important to neighbors like Luis and Luz Marie, is CornerStone’s effort to encourage relationships that turn into lasting friendships within their neighborhood.

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