Bilingual National Guard Members Use Language Skills to Boost COVID-19 Efforts at Ohio Food Bank

By 1st Lt. Caroline Pirchner

Members of the Ohio National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 134th Field Artillery Regiment, are helping the Mid-Ohio Foodbank provide food to families during the COVID-19 pandemic.

For two soldiers, distributing food is not the only critical task at the food bank.

Spc. Javier Roman, a fire control specialist, and Spc. Gabriel Kirk, a chaplain assistant, serve as interpreters during check-in and drive-thru operations for the large Hispanic population in the food bank’s service region. Roman and Kirk help Spanish-speaking families get the information they need to receive food.

Roman, whose first language is Spanish, says it’s just second nature to him, and sometimes, it seems like nearly every other car contains a Spanish-speaking family. His desire to serve Ohio and the Spanish-speaking communities during the pandemic is what drove him to extend his contract with the Ohio Army National Guard.

“Seeing someone that speaks their language, it brightens their day a little bit more,” Roman said. “It shows that someone’s here to help.”

Roman is a nurse working in children’s mental health in his civilian career and uses those skills at the food bank to help ease the anxiety of families who visit.

“I’m able to apply some of the strategies that I use in the hospital to these families, and that’s just by communicating with them effectively,” Roman said. “Some of them have told me they want to be volunteers, and that’s great that I’m able to translate that information, too.”

Kirk became fluent in Spanish by studying the language.

“They’re usually a little bit shocked to see that I speak Spanish to them,” Kirk said. “They really appreciate non-native speakers learning and speaking with them.”

On the civilian side, Kirk works as an interpreter for ASIST Translation and Interpreting Services, translating for legal, medical and social services. He communicates with these families, not just by using the language, but also by understanding how to use different techniques and vocabulary for specific situations.

Kirk also worked as a Spanish teacher at a high school just down the road from the Mid-Ohio Foodbank. One of his former students, who is also an Ohio National Guard soldier supporting the food bank mission at one of 14 local food banks and regional warehouses throughout the state, talked Kirk into joining the Guard, which he did at the age of 33.

Now, as a chaplain assistant with the Ohio Army National Guard, Kirk strongly values serving not only the Spanish-speaking communities but his fellow soldiers and his state.

He and Roman are a reflection of the values and skills in the Ohio National Guard and the benefits diversity brings to the organization.

“This is really what I wanted to do when I joined the Army National Guard — I wanted to specifically do the state mission,” Kirk said. “I love the state of Ohio, born and raised here, being a Buckeye is very important to me, but being able to help the people who are here, doing a stateside mission, it’s an honor and privilege to be able to do that.”

-This story originally appeared on nationalguard.mil. It has been edited for USO.org.

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