Volunteers in Basalt prepare for Fiesta de Tamales | AspenTimes.com

Volunteers in Basalt prepare for Fiesta de Tamales

Michael McLaughlin
The Aspen Times

Lara Beaulieu says the Fiesta de Tamales may draw the most diverse crowd of any event in the Roaring Fork Valley.

Beaulieu should know about diversity. As the director for English in Action, she sees or deals with diversity every time she goes to work.

English in Action is a local nonprofit organization with a mission to build community and intercultural relationships through language and leadership development. The group matches local English-speaking volunteers with students of all ages and nationalities for one-on-one weekly tutoring sessions to help them learn to speak English.

English in Action celebrates its 20th anniversary this year at the Fiesta de Tamales, its flagship fundraiser and community celebration.

"We had 300 people attend the fiesta last year and raised around $17,000," Beaulieu said. "The money goes to support our programs, which help adult immigrants learn English and participate more fully in our community. It's a great family event that really does draw one of the most diverse crowds of any event in the valley."

Volunteers have been busy preparing more than 1,000 homemade tamales and pupusas that will be available at the event.

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Returning this year to the event are the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet's Folklorico dancers, along with Mexican folk singers, pinatas and Spellbinders storytelling. More than 25 prizes will be given away during the event, including an iPad, a four-burner grill, a two-night stay at the Aspen Grand Hyatt, dinner at the Riverside Grill, pool passes at Avalanche Hot Springs and more.

"People love the Folklorico dancers," Beaulieu said. "They are really good. They wear traditional Mexican costumes and are obviously professional performers. It's very sensational."

Leah Perkins is a part-time staffer for English in Action and has been with the organization for a year and a half. She began volunteering as a tutor three months ago and said she finds many different aspects of English in Action to be incredibly rewarding.

"Lara is an amazing boss," Perkins said. "She's motivated and runs this organization very well. This is a great community to work with because so many people do their best to be involved. Since we're volunteer-based, people are here because they want to be and they want to help."

At the Fiesta de Tamales, the volunteers and the students change roles as the students take the lead and teach the volunteers how prepare tamales and pupusas, which will then be served at the event.

"I've learned that the hardest part is being willing to not know in front of people that know," Perkins said. "Sometimes when I come here, there's a room full of people speaking Spanish. If someone stops me, I'm suddenly on the other side. I speak a little Spanish, but I have to really focus to even understand a little. I don't know how to interact. It's hard and intimidating. It gave me a different respect on how the students feel when they're learning."

English in Action began at the Basalt library in 1994. It originally was a program the board at the library started as a way to serve all of its community members. In 2005, the group became independent as a nonprofit with its primary office in El Jebel.

English in Action has grown to serve the valley from Aspen to Carbondale.

The organization annually serves more than 230 adult students with the help of 160 volunteer tutors. Those looking to learn English pay a one-time fee of $25 once they're matched with a volunteer. English in Action looks for a commitment from the students of working one hour a week for at least six months.

"We don't want the fee to be an obstacle," Beaulieu said. "The fee helps the student feel committed and have some ownership of their actions."

Despite the lack of advertising, English in Action currently has a waiting list of 100 adults who want to learn English, Beaulieu said.

"I don't think that 100-person waiting list represents the number of people that would be interested in our services," she said. "I think there's a lot more. We don't do any advertising of our services because our waiting list is so long. Those 100 waiting are all from word of mouth. We're working towards increasing the size of our staff."

English in Action has the equivalent of three full-time staff members. Beaulieu has been the director at the organization for six years.

"There's something really amazing when an adult takes a step to make a difference in their lives," Beaulieu said. "I also think there's something really exciting about what happens when two people from very different backgrounds come together. They learn about their differences and their commonalities. I think a lot of adults worry they can't learn English, that they can't learn something new because they maybe haven't had a lot of success in an academic setting before. To help someone learn something is very empowering, and it goes both ways. When our students teach us something about their background, you can see the confidence it gives them. Tutoring creates a mechanism that helps people from different backgrounds get to know each other in many wonderful ways."

mmclaughlin@aspentimes.com