Another day at Alpine Elementary is winding down when Sylvia Saucedo-DeVries looks up to see a young man come in the office. Miguel Vega, 18, attended this school as a child and wants to say hi to his former teachers. They are gone for the day, but Saucedo-DeVries chats with him about his studies at Grand Rapids Community College. “Good for you, going to college,” she tells him. “Keep it up.”
She speaks from experience. Growing up in migrant camps, Saucedo-DeVries was among the first in her family to attend college. Now, as a bilingual secretary at Alpine, she encourages Hispanic students like Miguel to get a good education – and helps them on their way.
Saucedo-DeVries translates and provides other kinds of help for Hispanic pupils and their parents. Whether translating for parent-teacher conferences, fielding phone calls from parents with sick children or helping them obtain legal documentation, she takes joy in meeting the families’ needs that she knows very well.
Alpine houses all of the elementary migrant students in Kenowa Hills Public Schools. Last fall, during the migrant season, nearly one-third of its 350 students were Spanish-speaking.
“Even though they probably could get the help in English, they’re so relieved when they see me,” says Saucedo-DeVries, 49. “I love that the kids come in and I can say, ‘I did that, too. I lived in a camp.’ “
Picking Apples after School
Born in San Antonio, Texas, Saucedo-DeVries migrated as a child with her family to where the work was: Georgia, Florida, and Michigan. When she was 6, her father, Richard, settled the family in Ludington, worked odd jobs and rented a house. But Sylviaand her siblings continued to work alongside their mother, Mary.
“I remember after school every day going back out to the fields,” she says. “My mom would pick us up and we’d go pick apples and strawberries and pears and cherries.”
The field work continued after her father got a manufacturing job and bought a house. It was by no means an easy life but Sylvia did not feel deprived as a child.
“It isn’t till you get older and see what other people (have): ‘Oh, you have those kinds of shoes,'” she says.
Things got tougher in high school, when her father lost his job due to an injury and the family had to go on public assistance. Sylvia did not like having to use food stamps at the grocery.
In school, she was an average student but enjoyed the social aspect and playing sports. She also liked going to a summer school for migrant children where her mother worked as a teacher’s aide. But her first love was working with special-education students as a high school volunteer.
“I was like, ‘OK, this is what I want to do,'” she recalls.
‘We Were With the Migrant Kids Again’
At a school counselor’s suggestion she attended West Shore Community College, then worked for 12 years at Hope Network as a job coach for mentally impaired adults. While there she picked up a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Grand Valley State University, met her future husband, Randy DeVries, and served briefly in the Peace Corps in Costa Rica.
She eventually married Randy, started a family and began volunteering at her children’s school: Alpine Elementary. In time she was hired as a paraprofessional aide and, eight years ago, as a part-time secretary.
“I came out here, I saw the population and I just fell in love,” she says. “I loved that we were with the migrant kids again.”
Alpine sits amid the apple orchards where many migrants work each fall. Most travel south when the season is over, dropping the school’s Hispanic enrollment by about 50. But for both migrants and settled Spanish-speaking families, Saucedo-DeVries provides a vital link to school and community services.
As an English Language Learner Services site, Alpine is required to provide support to give Hispanic students equal access, says Jason Snyder, principal and Kenowa Hills’ ELLS program coordinator. That includes teaching English to students and involving their parents in school activities.
Saucedo-DeVries and the other bilingual secretary, Heather Blase, are “invaluable” to the school’s efforts, Snyder says. Saucedo-DeVries’ personal history helps her connect with families, he adds.
“She is gifted with developing relationships, whatever the nationality,” Snyder says. “She brings the energy, the lightness and a positivity to the building that is just fantastic. She makes working here fun.”
Don’t Call It a Fiesta
Indeed, Saucedo-DeVries laughs easily even as she describes her sometimes stressful work: tracking down student immunization records, checking children for lice or being unable to reach the parent of a sick child.
Not in her job description, she will sometimes offer a hug to a student whose family is going through hard times, or discreetly provide a parent the form for a child’s free or reduced lunch. Recalling her own family’s struggles, she says, “I try to make them at ease, like ‘you’re not alone.'”
Besides the usual secretarial tasks, she helps Hispanic parents with everything from transportation to day care. She’ll remind teachers to send home notes in Spanish and not to call a school party a “fiesta,” a huge affair to which parents would be expected to bring food.
But one migrant mom sometimes sends delicious tamales to the whole school, an example of the warm relationships with families that Saucedo-DeVries cherishes.
“They’re so thankful and they’re so grateful,” she says. “I love that I can use my Spanish, and I love the kids.”