WATAUGA — “I have come to the realization that when you come and work for others, like serving, that’s a way of self-care. I feel so much satisfaction from what I do,” said Yolanda Adams.

Adams is a longtime resident of Boone and a fixture in Watauga County Schools, and beyond, for many families in the High Country. Whether working as a family resource officer in the school system, volunteering her time with the Watauga Compassionate Community Initiative or her own Spanish language news FaceBook page, “Q’Pasa Appalachia,” Adams has her hands in many community projects.

Now, Adams is learning to serve the Watauga community even better through the LatinxEd Fellowship from LatinxEd, an organization that works to invest in Latinx leadership and expand educational equity and opportunity in North Carolina, according to their website.

Educators from all around North Carolina have been awarded this fellowship. Along with Adams, María Hofman Hernandez — an Avery County native who is a doctoral candidate in Educational Leadership, Interdisciplinary Studies at Appalachian State University — is another High Country educator in the cohort. According to LatinxEd, Hernandez has worked in higher education for more than 10 years with an emphasis on student development, program leadership and advising for two-year college program experiences.

The cohort meets online every Friday, Adams said, focusing on a new theme such as challenging levels in government and the power of the purse in educational policy. Each week the fellows complete journal entries reflecting on what they have learned, discussed or are taking away from the session. Adams said the fellows have materials to review before each meeting, such as videos or readings.

The fellows represent Latinx leaders in education from across the state. “It’s a group of amazing professionals,” Adams said. She is excited to work with others passionate about similar issues and sees the group as an opportunity for professionals to “help each other achieve goals” and share ideas.

“You never stop learning,” Adams said.

She hopes that through this fellowship she and other educational professionals will draw on each other’s backgrounds and experiences to build each other up. Sharing ideas and experiences with projects, Adams said, can help others learn about what strategies were successful, what challenges other educational professionals face and make long and difficult processes for one person easier to accomplish for another.

Adams said that she has shared with the cohort about two of her larger projects she has conducted with Watauga County schools aimed at helping Latinx students succeed in higher education. Adams is trained in the “Juntos” (together) program, which unites organizations, programs and community leaders to provide Latinx students and parents with resources and aid to prevent youth from dropping out of school.

However, Adams said that she saw that when students enter freshman year of high school at 14 or 15 years old “they already have set minds about college.” Realizing this, Adams said she knew the program needed to “back up,” and so she began “Semillas” (seeds), which targets kindergarten- through third-grade parents. “We compare the U.S. school system with the ones from their home countries,” Adams said. The program instructs parents about what the U.S. school system offers, who are the administrators, what resources are available to students and how students can progress through the system toward higher education.

With her experience from working with the Watauga Compassionate Community Initiative, Adams adds her own twist to higher-education-focused programming for Latinx youth by including a trauma-informed approach that focuses on promoting Latinx youth’s mental and emotional health as part of their educational journey.

Recognizing that many of her students have had traumatic experiences, whether they be from migration journeys or other events in their lives, Adams said that addressing childhood trauma is important as the trauma can have ramifications later in time, and that ultimately families succeed when they have access to resources and help. Noting that mental health can often be a taboo topic in Latin American cultures, Adams said that working carefully and tactfully in these situations is part of creating a holistic plan to help students.

“This is a topic we cannot leave aside,” Adams said. She hopes that in the future the LatinxEd fellows will have a session about mental health for Latinx students.

The last meeting’s theme, according to Adams, was the State of Latinx education in NC, which presented data on students and how proportionally Latinx students are served based on faculty diversity.

“It was just ... oh my goodness, I love it. It was just amazing because there was a lot of data to show like, how many students we have in North Carolina, Latino students that are in North Carolina, and how proportionately served they are based on the lack of diversity and staff, like the teachers and all that compared to the students,” Adams said. “My hope is that little by little we will start to have more Latino background teachers.”

Adams lectures at Appalachian State University and said that she has been excited by seeing the increasing proportion of Latinx students in education and hopes that the number of Hispanic teachers serving the Watauga community will continue to grow.

“The job is never done,” Adams said. Supporting Latinx families in the High Country within the schools, Adams said she is constantly coming up with new projects and workshops to address the needs brought to her by community members.

She said that WCS Superintendent Scott Elliot, Student Services Director Paul Holden and Director of Accountability and School Improvement Wayne Eberle have been “an extreme pleasure to work with” and “real allies” to Adams. Whenever she pitches them an idea, “they listen with not just open ears, but open hearts.”

When Adams is hosting workshops, she said Elliot always “has the intention to just go in and say hi to us, and he always practices a little Spanish.” Adams said that the families she works with appreciate the administration’s effort to be welcoming and inclusive.

“He has no idea how much magic he has in those little words that he knows,” Adams said.

Ultimately, Adams said that from the LatinxEd Fellowship she hopes to bring more knowledge about resources accessible for families in the Watauga County schools system.

“I want to learn what resources are out there that I have not thought about,” Adams said.

While Adams said she is an expert in the field, she stated that there is always room to grow and that she is overall excited to work with other passionate educators and use their knowledge to help her community in Watauga.

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Marisa Mecke is a Report for America corps mebmer for Mountain Times Publications. Report for America is a national nonprofit service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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