LARASA helping Latinos apply for food stamps in Jeffco

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By AJ Vicens

A Denver-based Latino advocacy organization is helping Latino residents apply for food stamps in Jefferson County, and the county says the project has been a huge help.

The Latin American Research and Service Agency recently was awarded a federal grant to help low-income Latino households apply for food stamps in Jefferson, Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder and Denver counties.

The nonprofit group initially planned to use the money to encourage more Latinos to apply for benefits but after meeting with county officials, it became clear the mission had to change.

"After meeting with them, they said the best way we could help was to help the counties make sure people are prepared for the application and make sure they have the documents they need so the application is complete," said Chy Montoya-Sanchez, a family health advocate with LARASA.

Guadalupe Pitones of Denver said her situation is a perfect example of how LARASA's efforts are paying off.

"I had been trying to get (food assistance) for about a month before I had finally called (LARASA)," Pitones said. Pitones had to quit her job because her 2-year-old son was diagnosed with a serious medical condition. She was living in Adams County at the time, had some experience with LARASA and thought the organization could help. Montoya-Sanchez called Adams County and "made the ball roll quicker," Pitones said. Apparently Pitones' application wasn't complete, and Montoya-Sanchez helped figure out what was missing to move the application process forward.

Montoya-Sanchez also helped Pitones get her records transferred between counties when Pitones moved.

"There's not a lot of people that are caring the way they are," Pitones said. Between moving and figuring out her son's illness and how to take care of him, dealing with a complicated application process was tough.

"I had a lot on my plate as it was," Pitones said. "She made it all much easier for me."

County food assistance offices have seen a jump in applicants. The statewide need for food assistance grew 19 percent from 2007 to 2008. In Jeffco, the demand grew by nearly 25 percent in that time period.

Montoya-Sanchez said LARASA is teaming with Denver-based public relations firm MGA Communications to help the Latino community learn which programs they may qualify for and how to streamline the process.

John Ekstrom of MGA Communications said some grant money will be used to air public service announcements on Spanish television and radio stations. LARASA and MGA also will have a booth at the Jefferson County Community Resource Fair June 9 at the fairgrounds.

"There are some barriers (for the Latino community)," Montoya-Sanchez said, "one of the biggest being language. A lot of Spanish-speaking individuals don't really know what programs are available and what they may qualify for."

One of the challenges in serving the Latino community is working with undocumented families. Under current state and federal laws, a child born in the United States to illegal immigrants is a citizen and is eligible for food assistance. The parents of that child can apply for assistance, but the benefits go only to help feed the child.

County officials say the outreach program is helping.

"LARASA is able to assist their customers in completing applications for public assistance and help their customers in obtaining the required verification documents to process benefits," said Brenda Bouchard, a program coordinator at the Jefferson County Human Services’ Community Assistance Division. "This collaboration is a benefit for both the customer and the various county human services departments."

Bouchard said Jeffco has provided some training to LARASA workers, so they'll know the requirements for food assistance.

"We're just hoping we'll help," Montoya-Sanchez said, "and we're not trying to hinder the process."

Here's a list of basic documents needed for a food-stamp application:

• Proof of identity (birth certificate, driver's license or state-issued ID card, work or school-issued ID card or a health benefits ID card)

• Proof of residency (utility bills, rental agreement or mortgage agreement that shows address)

• Breakdown of earned income (pay stubs, statement from employer as to gross wages, income tax forms, self-employment bookkeeping records)

• Breakdown of unearned income (proof of Social Security payments, supplemental security income, Veterans Affairs benefits, child support, alimony, unemployment and retirement income)

For more information, visit www.fns.usda.gov/snap, or call the Jefferson County Department of Human Services at 303-271-1388. LARASA can be reached at 303-722-5150, or visit www.larasa.org.