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Rock Hill woman gives back to agency that helped her

Mariela Palomino is the kind of student any school would appreciate.

She was so thankful for what she learned at Rock Hill schools' Parent Smart Family Resource Center, that she returned as a volunteer and became a crucial asset at a time when budget cuts are hampering the center's ability to meet demand for its services.

Parent Smart is a small organization off Black Street where adults can learn English, prepare for the GED certificate and acquire parenting skills while their young children attend enrichment programs.

It's where Palomino overcame language barriers and learned to navigate an unfamiliar country and eventually feel at home.

"For me, this is the best place," she said. "We can learn English. Our kids can learn English. This is a school to learn to be better parents. We feel here like a family."

Palomino, who moved to Rock Hill from Michoacán, Mexico, nearly a decade ago, took several courses at the center and enrolled her youngest daughter, Tania, in an early childhood program. She finished in 2009, nearly fluent in English, ready for the GED exam and confident her children were on a path to future success.

To show her appreciation she offered to help out, spending more than 325 hours last school year volunteering on campus. She assisted teachers in an early care and education program for infants and children up to 5 years old.

"Mariela loved, nurtured, read to and comforted all of the children in the program," Parent Smart Director Cindy Hunt said. "She not only worked with the children but helped to mentor the adult students assisting them with their studies and helping many of them reach their goals.

"She has helped to enhance and improve our program. We couldn't have done it without her."

Never say no

The phone at Parent Smart rings often.

Hunt fields a full spectrum of requests and has developed a network of service providers across York County, pointing people to agencies that can help them.

In addition, the center houses a pediatric clinic, a lending library, and parent discussion groups and workshops.

"Anything you need, you can ask here," Palomino said.

But the staff is small and resources are stretched.

They have come to depend on volunteers to help keep the ratio of teachers and adults to students down.

The center offers one GED course and one English course. Adults attend 12 to a class while waiting lists grow.

Palomino said she was on a waiting list for three years.

But her time at Parent Smart changed her life for the better, she said.

As a kindergarten teacher in Mexico, she often designed and made crafts and supplies. With help from Hunt's staff, she applied for a business license last year and started selling her work.

"My two loves are working with kids and working with crafts," she said. "I can stay all day working on that."

Many of the toddlers whose parents take English courses at Parent Smart are Hispanic and don't understand the language.

They struggle with separation anxiety, Hunt said. "Mariela recognized this difficulty and worked diligently to assist them in acclimating," she said.

Palominoalso has become somewhat of a liaison for not just the center, but the community and Rock Hill's Hispanic population.

She spreads the word about available services and encourages people to get involved.

When the school district was seeking volunteers and donations this summer for an effort to get school supplies and shoes to needy children, Palomino recruited a group of volunteers to help.

She keeps people updated about events, such as concerts and Rock Hill's Come See Me festival.

For Hispanics who don't speak English well, festivals can be intimidating, she said, "because they don't speak or understand and they don't feel comfortable."

Currently, she's working on forming a parent-teacher association for Parent Smart.

At the end of last school year, Hunt asked Palomino if she would return to volunteer the following year.

For Palomino, the answer was easy.

"In this place, everybody works so hard to make you feel good," she said. "Nobody will laugh at you because you don't speak English good. They never say no.

"I couldn't say no."