Last Tuesday, the Southold Town Board voted unanimously to appoint longtime resident and community advocate Sonia Spar to a newly created position: Spanish-speaking community service worker.
As a part-time employee based out of the supervisor’s office, Ms. Spar will address the concerns and needs of both the Spanish-speaking community and the various departments in the township that serve it. Perhaps most noticeably, she will help the town prioritize public signage and information materials that need to be translated into Spanish.
“The different offices that provide services to residents should have information in Spanish,” Ms. Spar said. “I’m helping the community understand how to do things.”
While the position may be new to the town, Ms. Spar is familiar with the community engagement it requires. A Southold resident since she moved to the United States from Colombia nearly two decades ago, she has been immersed in the community and recognizes many of the challenges some of its Spanish-speaking members have faced.
Signage and public information materials at town-operated facilities such as Town Hall, the Human Resource Center in Mattituck and the recreation and community centers on Peconic Lane are often only available in English.
“Sonia is one of the nicest, most dedicated people you will ever meet, and I think her passion is really uplifting and improving the lives of others,” Town Supervisor Scott Russell said regarding the decision to enlist Ms. Spar for the new role. “She’s someone that wants to build bridges.”
Mr. Russell said the North Fork Unity Action Committee made the town aware of the “chasm of communication” for Spanish speakers who need to interact with town government.
“All the language is generally in English, all the documents are in English, all the applications are in English,” he explained. “Although we do have people that speak Spanish, we don’t have many. They were very interested in seeing the town take efforts to become more bilingual, actually multilingual … so that we as a local government are serving the entire community, that we can communicate with a part of the community that can’t be overlooked.”
When asked what her first task will be, Ms. Spar said she plans “to make sure that the community knows that there is someone here that is willing to help them. It is going to be working with them so that they understand every single process that they may need [to follow], understand how to fill out the forms and all the services that the town has. So my first priority is to communicate with the community that I’m here for them.”
Among the other priorities Ms. Spar noted were tax forms, vehicle permits and signage around Town Hall.
Ms. Spar already has nearly a decade in the community service realm as a member of the Southold Town Anti-Bias Task Force.
“We’re making sure nobody falls through the cracks and that their concerns or needs are being heard,” she said of her time with that body. “With COVID-19, we came to realize that if there is an emergency plan, there is a segment of our community that is not able to understand what is being said. We have Channel 22, we have other sources of information that is only being provided in English. It’s for the safety of the town, it’s for the safety of the community.”
Ms. Spar said her outreach efforts will begin at this year’s English as a New Language parents’ nights the town’s schools host each fall and at various businesses she will soon visit.
“More important than being in the office is being out there and telling the community, ‘We’re here, what are your needs? How are you feeling? ‘ ” she said. “You will not see me here tomorrow, you will see me out there … trying to get a reading of the community to then come here and discuss with the Town Board our priorities.”