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Molly Born/MEDILL

A mural at Wheaton's People's Resource Center shows the services it offers low income and immigrant residents of DuPage County. PRC is just one of the area groups addressing the collar county's growing immigrant popualtion.

Diversity in DuPage is like a shift from vanilla to caramel fudge swirl, official says

by Molly Born
Feb 17, 2011


Molly Born/MEDILL

Tereza Dhour, a Sudanese refugee and artisan, holds one of her creations at the People's Resource Center Women's Wisdom Artisan project Saturday, Feb. 12.


Molly Born/MEDILL

Data complied by the DuPage Federation on Human Services Reform data reveals that Spanish was the non-English language most widely spoken in DuPage County in 2009.

Molly Born/MEDILL

Related Links

People's Resource CenterDupage PADSAccess DuPageCentral DuPage Hospital Interpreter ServicesDuPage Federation on Human Services Reform

Spotlight on the People's Resource Center Women's Wisdom Artisan Project


DuPage community organizations are extending their services to immigrant populations, and the People’s Resource Center of Wheaton is adding its mark on the increasingly diverse canvas.

PRC, which offers a food pantry, career services, literary programs and computer skills among other services, debuted its Women’s Wisdom Artisan program last fall. The jewelry-making project – the brainchild of PRC board vice president Barbara Tartaglione – teaches area women how to make and market their own creations. 

Last fall, Betty James, owner of The Genuine Article in downtown Wheaton, agreed to instruct the eight area women in three jewelry-making sessions at her shop.

“I was glad to see that they were incorporating their ethnicity into the design that they were doing because so often that kind of thing gets lost,” James said.

Of the initial participants, two are Sudanese, three are Hispanic, one is Ukrainian and two others grew up in the U.S. And their ages are as varied as their backgrounds – the youngest is in her 20s, the oldest in her 60s.

“I do think it is continuing to mirror that diversity that we're serving,” said PRC Executive Director Kim Perez. “I think that that will continue and we’re really hoping to be able to offer classes on a continuous basis.”

A new round of classes for another eight budding artists is set for June, said Lesley Gena, coordinator of the program. Hopeful participants are already on a waiting list, she added.

DuPage County used to be vanilla.

That’s according to Candace King, executive director of the DuPage Federation on Human Services Reform, in Villa Park.

"I think it's the difference between vanilla and caramel fudge swirl,” King said. “We're far more complex than we used to be."

Data compiled by the DuPage Federation show that the Chicago collar county is becoming increasingly diverse. The data, based on the Census’ American Community Survey, reveals that the number of foreign-born residents has steadily increased from about 71,300 in 1990 to 171,000 by 2009 estimates.

And while 2010 Census data released Wednesday show the population in DuPage County has grown by only 1.4 percent in a decade, King said without the influx of immigrants in the county, the overall population could likely have declined.

"Without the international immigrants, DuPage would have had a decrease in its population [by 2010] if all other factors were held constant," she said.

The migration of people who aren’t from the U.S. is “the basic core engine of the population growth in this region,” said Northern Illinois University Professor Robert Gleeson, who is familiar with DuPage demographics.

"If it were not for the arrival of immigrant people in the U.S., the population would be falling," he said.

In addition, property value and tax bases would not see growth and establishing a labor force would be difficult for tax companies, without the increasing immigrant population in the area, Gleeson said.

"If we aren't accommodating to people and help them find their American dream, they’ll find it elsewhere,” he said.

Coming together

As a result of the Federation’s research, King said, DuPage County organizations created the Cultural and Linguistic Competency Learning Circle. The group includes seven executive directors from organizations including a local domestic violence shelter, a free clinic, a teen parent program and the People’s Resource Center and Public Action to Deliver Shelter, both located in Wheaton.

The directors stress the value of cultural competency, encourage and bring about diversity in their boards and attract new faces within their staff to better meet the needs of their new neighbors, King said.

"We consider it very important to understand what are the customs of a particular culture,” King said. “But we want to do more than that. We want to understand what it is to be an immigrant, a stranger in a strange land."

Helping the poor

Access DuPage, a community health care program in Northwest suburban Carol Stream launched 9 years ago this month, serves between 10,000 and 11,000 low income and uninsured patients each year.

Of those, almost half identify themselves as Spanish speaking, while just over a third are English speaking and just under 2,000 people said neither Spanish nor English is their primary language, according to Access DuPage Executive Director Kara Murphy.

This breakdown of Access DuPage’s patient population bolsters DuPage Federation data that shows ethnic and racial minorities are more likely to be poor. Indeed, immigrants are some of the first individuals to lose high paying full-time work and health care benefits, Murphy said.

And while King said the program isn’t the answer to big-picture questions on health care, the service it provides is invaluable. Hospitals and doctors have donated $70 million worth of care since the program started, she said.

“The beauty of it is instead of waiting for Springfield or Washington to solve the problem,” King said, “we just did it ourselves.”

In an 18-month period, the program’s enrollment increased by 55 percent, peaked in June 2010 and has seen a modest decrease since, Murphy added.

A need for language services 

With a continuing influx of immigrants into the community, the demand for more language interpreters at area medical facilities is acute, said Kate Clarke, manager for patient relations and interpreter services at Central DuPage Hospital, in Winfield.

In fact, DuPage Federation statistics reveal that of the 873,000 residents in the county, more than a quarter speak another language in the home other than English, up from about 21 percent a decade ago. About 90,000 people said they speak English “less than very well” in 2009.

As of Thursday, the latest Census Bureau estimates for limited English proficiency have yet to be released.

Clarke noted that hospital caregivers are increasingly aware of the importance of interpreters – chiefly ones with the medical acumen to not only help with language but also explain complex medical terms.

An interpreter is available at Central DuPage from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily, and patients with additional language needs can schedule services.

Spanish interpreting services are needed most these days, Clarke said, with the demand for interpreter services in 15 to 20 other languages appearing to rotate in importance. The overall demand is clearly higher today than eight years old, she added.

“Years ago we used to really struggle with [how to] justify needing another interpreter,” Clarke said. But these days, she added, signs of increased demand for interpreter services have surfaced, with caregivers saying, “You guys are always busy.”

But it goes beyond the services you can offer, Clarke said. Health professionals have placed a greater focus on culturally competent health care.

Cultures approach health care differently, she said, and it’s important for medical professionals to be familiar with their religious practices, preferences and even ethnic herbal remedies that could affect treatment.

"All of those interweaved through the health care experience impact how we as a health care provider make recommendations to a patient,” Clarke said.

At Central DuPage, caregivers have access to an online research database that breaks down customs that are common in 26 different cultures. The concept is also stressed in new nurse orientation, and professionals are encouraged to be attentive to patient concerns that may not be accounted for online, she said.

Looking ahead

Wheaton’s Public Action to Deliver Shelter is a member of the Cultural and Linguistic Competency Learning Circle.

But the agency doesn’t serve a significant number of immigrants, said Carol Simler, PADS executive director. For Simler, her participation in the learning circle means being proactive and preparing for a further increase in immigration to DuPage in the future.

“What we're seeing is that we don't have the immigrants coming to us now, and whatever we're doing is preparing for customer relations for when people do come to us,” she said. “What we will do is provide safety, shelter, food and support.”

“With this new influx, we as an agency have to have a plan in place," Simler said.

As a longtime DuPage resident, Simler said her “eyes were opened” to the needs in the county as immigrants increasingly populated the area.

"I think we live very insulated lives," she said, "until our eyes are open and we become aware of the other cultures, other people's needs and the respect that each one of us wants no matter what culture they're in."