Housing community targets physical, social and educational needs

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Gertrudis Aragon (center) and her children, Rafael Santiago, 9, and Angelica Santiago, 5, gather in their Juniper Gardens kitchen for snacks and to show off their gas stove.The parents and their toddler took up the bed, while the six-year-old and 11-year-old squeezed between storage boxes on the floor.

It was where they slept. It was where they hung out.

It was one of several cramped arrangements Gertrudis Aragon and her family passed through on their way to Juniper Gardens, a new affordable-housing community on the northeast side of Forest Grove.

Juniper Gardens is the 11th housing complex created and run by Bienestar, a nonprofit which provides housing and resident services to year-round farmworkers and other low-income families, mostly in western Washington County.

Here in their three-bedroom home, Aragon and her husband, Ciro Santiago-Morales, have 1,225 square feet and a separate bedroom for Rafael, now 9, from his sisters, 5 and 14.

They have other wonders — a gas stove. An upstairs. Closets.

“The kids play in the closets a lot,” said Gertrudis, who spent five years living in migrant shacks not much bigger than closets.

In addition to 24 gleaming townhomes, which were filled when they opened Dec. 1, Juniper Gardens offers Bienestar’s signature community-building programs, geared to strengthen ties between neighbors, educate and inspire children, promote family activities and give adults important skills.

Juniper Gardens shows that “the village concept is alive and well,” said Forest Grove Mayor Pete Truax at its grand opening this month.

“It’s not just a building. It’s a community,” Rep. Ben Unger added.

Energy-efficient features

That’s not to overlook the building. LEED-certified at the Gold level, Juniper Gardens is brimming with recycled and energy-efficient features, which help keep residents’ utility bills low, said Program Services Director Gracie Garcia.

And it has special features suggested by a pre-design focus group of trained “promotores” or “community leaders” from Bienestar’s other sites: the playground outside the laundry room so mothers can watch their children through the window; an outdoor pump station for hosing down uniforms that may be contaminated with pesticides; a “mud room” just outside each unit where a farmworker can drop his dirty clothes after work, before he enters the house.

Bienestar’s focus on residents’ social and emotional needs has also been carefully designed. At Juniper Gardens, it started with a holiday party Dec. 22 featuring cookies, free books, a gift-giving Santa and goodie bags for everyone.

Jan. 30, Garcia will start a Homework Club for children in grades one through six. A science club for grades two through five will start March 1.

Later in the spring, the complex will offer computer classes for adults and community garden spaces for anyone who wants one. The summer will bring Audubon family outings and other family programs.

That’s how the help starts. Gustavo Martinez is how it ends.

Homework clubs

Martinez moved with his family to Bienestar’s Jose Echeverria site in Forest Grove when he was 14.

His father’s job had disappeared in the slumping economy and the family ended up — like so many homeless families — in the bedroom of a friend or relative, with Martinez sleeping on an air mattress while his parents and two younger siblings shared the bed.

In Bienestar, encouraged by community leaders, Martinez mentored Homework Clubs at various sites. For his senior project, Martinez taught English as a Second Language to 13 Bienestar adults.

Martinez also opened a special education-related savings account through Bienestar, which triple-matched the $1,000 he earned working at Sonic in Cornelius, giving him $4,000 for college tuition.

He is now a sophomore at Portland State University, majoring in business, marketing and advertising, with hopes of working for a nonprofit — and traveling.

“I feel like it changed my entire life,” Martinez says of his time at Bienestar.

Nine-year-old Rafael, just starting his Bienestar experience, is years away from senior projects and education savings accounts.

But he has signed up to attend Homework Club — if his mother can tear him away from his spacious new home with its well-stocked kitchen and private bedroom and closets to play in.

That’s the problem with her children now, Aragon said: “They don’t want to go out they’re so happy.”

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