Gaston & Catawba

‘Survival Spanish' aids police and community

My Spanish is a little rusty.

To tell the truth, except for a few basic phrases from college, it's mostly faded.

I didn't mention I'd ever studied the language when I recently visited Beverly Lovelace's Spanish III class at Cherryville High School.

These kids would have put me to shame. They not only speak Spanish well, but they're helping teach it to Gaston County's law enforcement officers.

“Survival Spanish” is a service project that gives officers the basic tools they need to communicate better while working the streets.

Here's the package the kids came up with: an 87-page bilingual phrase book that covers everything from arrests and medical questions to traffic stops and searches and domestic violence; a CD to help with pronunciation; and a laminated chart with an English-Spanish body chart on one side and bilingual Miranda rights on the other.

The goal is to get the materials into the hands of the 600 or so sworn officers in Gaston County by April.

Cherryville police Sgt. Cam Jenks, one of Lovelace's former Spanish students, said none the 12 officers on the force speak Spanish fluently.

Lovelace met with Jenks to see about what phrases officers needed the most on duty. If they can't pronounce the phrases in the books, Jenks said, officers can communicate by showing people the phrases.

“The project has been real beneficial to us,” he said.

This is a high school class with a mission.

The day I dropped by, everybody was busy. I sat down with seniors Stacy Martin, Laura Webb, Landon Culp and Cannon Carpenter, who told me about putting the packages together and then getting contributions to pay for the project.

They work the telephones in the evenings, calling around the community, asking for donations. They also make the pitch in person at businesses.

For them, Spanish class is more than learning a language.

“We're also learning how to communicate with other people better,” Landon told me. “It's a really good experience.”

The goat incident

Lovelace, 51, studied Spanish in Jane Falls' 10th grade class at Bessemer City High.

Back then, some students asked: Why Spanish? We'll never use it.

The region's Spanish-speaking population hadn't exploded yet. The big trip in Lovelace's class was an outing to an eatery named Pedro's. Even though it was way over on the east side of Charlotte, going there was worth the trouble in the days when finding a Mexican restaurant wasn't easy.

The food and décor were so exotic that Lovelace almost felt like she was in Mexico.

Lovelace knew what she wanted to do: teach Spanish.

She majored in the subject at Gardner-Webb College and taught in high schools in Rutherford, Lincoln and Gaston counties. In 1984, she joined the faculty at Cherryville High.

Five years ago, while working a high school football game at Cherryville's Rudisill Stadium, Lovelace began talking to a police officer who was a former student at the school.

As they stood in the parking lot, they spotted something strange: a small goat jumping from car to car. The animal had apparently strayed from the residence of a Hispanic family across the street, Lovelace said.

She expected the officer to go over and remind the folks that local ordinances prohibited goats inside the city limits.

But the officer stayed put. When Lovelace asked why he didn't walk across the street and explain things to the family, he replied: “I can't talk Spanish.”

The words kept ringing in her mind. They were the seeds that led to the “Survival Spanish” project.

Lovelace brainstormed with her upper-level Spanish students about what they could do to improve police officers' Spanish communication skills. The kids came up with pocket-size flash cards with phrases and a pronunciation guide.

In 2004, they added more phrases and a CD. Every year, the books were revised and expanded.

The 60 sets cost $15 each to produce. Most of the money came from raffling cakes made by Lovelace. She also kicked in a little of her own money. Last year, Cherryville High principal Stephen Huffstetler gave the project $200.

Kicking up a notch

The hefty pound cake with vanilla icing that Lovelace showed me the day I visited her class brought in $711 at the school raffle, she said.

It will take $900 to produce this year's “Survival Spanish” packages.

Even in a bad economy, Lovelace felt good about raising the rest of the money.

This is a win-win deal – for students, police officers and the public in general.

Once all the law enforcement officers have been supplied with the materials, Lovelace said, the focus will shift to Gaston's firefighters.

The mission goes on. Students keep learning while kicking up the community's lines of communication another notch.