Alone in strange land, Wendy makes a mark

By Pat Kenney
Journal Correspondent

The story of Wendy Comfort Castillo is one of heartache and hope. From her childhood home in Costa Rica in the Central American ithsmus area just north of Panama, she left her middle class Hispanic family and moved alone to Puerto Viejo, a town by the ocean to work in a pizzeria. She met and married Brad Comfort, an American from Bernice, in Union Parish in the extreme north of Louisiana, down the road from Junction City, on the Arkansas-Louisiana state line.

Wendy was brought to the United States from Costa Rica in 1995 by her adventurous husband. They lived in North Carolina, where her husband was a whitewater rafting guide. Wendy said, "I did not choose to come as a tourist or a refugee. I was brought here as a bride, on promise of love. In less than a year I was basically homeless with a six-month old child, $20.00, and a 1965 Volvo as the only things I could count as mine." She was nineteen years old and weighed ninety pounds. She was not eating, thin, losing her hair, and homesick.

The Comforts only lived in North Carolina for about five months before coming with their baby boy to live with Brad's mother Mrs. Ann Comfort in the town of Bernice. Wendy spoke no English. She felt totally suspended in time in a world that she could only somewhat understand because she did not speak their English.

She possessed neither the blue eyes nor blond hair of the locals. She says "I could feel the lack of air around me like a mermaid taken out of the ocean. At this time I did not believe that I could do anything to help myself and decided I must be nothing of value."

Her one advantage in this strange new country was the compassionate teachers who helped her break through the language barrier and prove her worth.

Her husband, Brad Comfort had left her in the care of his mother as he took off on another adventure. Mrs. Comfort had no idea what to do with Wendy and the baby. Wendy had only wanted a normal family life for their son. She became very unhappy and depressed. She worked to clean Mrs. Comfort's large house, but felt hopelessly alone. Her husband was gone for an extended time, and she could neither communicate with her mother in law nor drive a car. Brad rarely called, and she didn't know how to call him.

Mrs. Comfort sought a means to communicate with Wendy in Spanish. She was led to Mrs. Christy Hatley. At end of 1996 her husband returned, and Wendy made a desperate plea that they become a family. He had other plans and told her if she was unhappy he would take her back to Costa Rica because that was where he was going to work, but that their son would be raised in Bernice. This was an overwhelming blow to the young mother. She decided to stay in Bernice, and he caught a plane and left. Once again she would not see him for a very long time.

Mrs. Comfort contacted Mrs. Christy Hatley who was a kindergarten teacher and was teaching a few Hispanic students, and solicited her help. Mrs. Christy talked to Wendy about her feelings and encouraged her to learn English and to drive a car. This was a turning point. She began driving lessons. Her husband had left her a 1967 car with stick shift.

The next year a turning point occurred for Wendy when Mrs. Christy's elderly parents, Mr. and Mrs. Burns were in an automobile accident. Wendy was hired to care for them. She and Lance were given a room, and she moved out of her mother-in-law's home. This event was so emotionally charged that Wendy with tears in her eyes began speaking so rapidly that I could not understand her. It was fortunate that she had brought a co-worker who explained the situation to me. Although this was an open door for Wendy, I could see how deeply she loved these retired teachers and how much it meant to her to be welcome in their home. She had a job and was on her own. She adored Mimi and Papa and did everything for them. Wendy says "Papa was bedridden and needed frequent care. Mrs. Burns needed someone to make doctor's appointments and to shop for groceries. I had to learn to integrate into the community to help both of them. What I didn't realize at the time was that Mrs. Burns was teaching me even by handing me her grocery list. I gained enlarged word recognition, diction, and writing skills."

Mrs. Christy had continued with driving instructions, and finally told Wendy the time had come to take the test. Wendy didn't think so, but Christy insisted and took her to the DMV in her truck. During the test she was terrified that she had forgotten to put on the blinker before a turn. She expressed to the adminisgtrator of the driving test how very much she needed to be legal. He proved to be very kind and she received her license. Wendy tearfully exclaimed at this point, "And that very day, we met Mrs. Donna Medlin who told us about Even Start." Everything she needed would be supplied even transportation to the center.

Wendy visited the center and saw for the first time the hope of learning English and getting a GED, the high school equivalency degree. However, as she was employed Monday through Friday by the Burns, cleaning houses on the weekends, and working at Wild Bill's café her schedule conflicted with the hours of instruction at the center. It was decided she could use the in-home service of Even Start.

Mrs. Comfort helped by caring for her grandson on weekends. Wendy was a working girl and loving it. Mrs. Donna taught Wendy in home and decided it was time for Wendy to be tested for the GED. Once again Wendy had to rise to the challenge. She said of the experience, "My legs were shaking so badly. There was a strange animal I had to tame--my own ignorance was that animal. This was how I could prove that I am an intelligent person and that I can learn. So I went in there and took it. Afterwards I was totally drained. I had confronted my biggest fears, the very biggest being that I would let down Mrs. Medlin. To do that was to let myself down and also my son."

"When I got the letter, the first letter I had ever received, Mrs. Burns read it to me. I had my GED. I asked for the first thing I had ever asked for. I asked if I could call Mrs. Donna. When I told her we both cried." This was in 2004 and Wendy had people believing in her and was learning to believe in herself.

She saw that there were many opportunities available to her and she could take advantage of them. She felt wonderfully free but many times she felt she didn't have the strength to go on and feared she would break down. She was facing deportation proceedings with no immigration attorney in the area to assist. Her marriage was dissolving and she did not know if her upcoming divorce would hinder her legal status or not. She turned to Mrs. Donna who constantly encouraged.

"Don't give up. When you get your GED you can write to immigration," she said. Her fears were realized when Immigration asked for proof that had a happy marriage, and she couldn't do that. The fear of deportation put her in a state of despair.

New assistance for women became available at the time, and she was encouraged to hire a lawyer from New Orleans. When the case was heard the judge told Wendy that she was so sorry for what had been done to her.

At that point she handed Wendy the necessary paperwork to secure her residency. Wendy says that Mrs. Christy Hatley and Mrs. Donna Medlin recognized her potential and patiently provided the support and skills to become a better person. Wendy credits their efforts as the catalyst that allowed her to become the first Hispanic student to graduate from Even Start. She had overcome every obstacle and had triumphed. Wendy obtained her divorce about this time.

In 2004 Wendy graduated from Even Start, and she was offered a job at the Center. The Bernice Even Start was now launched and their forward progress required hiring someone who spoke both languages. Wendy thrilled to have the opportunity to work in a way to help others, and did any and everything possible. The majority of her time was spent caring for the children while their mothers were in class. It was a blessing to her because her own little boy could be there and be read to in English. Her work expanded as the patrons began to ask Wendy to teach and help them understand the English and Spanish programs on the computer. A hope rose in her heart that she could become a teacher to these people. It was an opportunity to repay the kindness of her loving teachers by rescuing others. At present she is finishing up a degree in Early Childhood Education at South Arkansas Commuity College at Magnolia, to better serve the Center. Further, Wendy won her citizenship.

One day a Hispanic gentleman, Jesus (Spanish pronunciation: Hay-Sus) Castillo called Wendy. She was not interested in romance but he persisted. He drove by her house to see her working in her yard. She finally agreed to see him. A friendship developed into love. They have been married five years and are very happy, expecting their first child together within a few months. He is employed by Mabry COnstruction Co. in Ruston.

Wendy stated, "Donna Medlin listened to me and responded to me making sense of my broken English. She didn't look at me and see my barriers. She looked at me with hope and saw something no one else could see. She saw the diamond in me. She saw something could be made of the rock."

"The whole point of speaking about any tribulations I may have gone through, from being an uneducated, Hispanic, single mother, with no grasp of the English language and feeling homeless in this strange world, in this country far away from my childhood home, may seem sad but the whole point of the story I want to tell is how I received moral support and faithful teaching to help me to become an educated, fluent bilingual citizen, homeowner and citizen of the USA. These people blessed my life and my son's life, who is now fifteen years old and a happy well integrated young man in this community." Wendy says her passion is to give back to this community by teaching English and Spanish to any and everyone in the same caring manner she has received here in Bernice, Louisiana.

What is Wendy's ultimate dream for the future? This is just a wish now. She would like to become a lawyer still working in Union Parish. She has found it a good place to call home.

"Even Start" is a family literacy program to enhance education in the home and transfer the value of education to the next generation. It is made up of four components; early childhood education, Adult Education, Parent and Child Together Time (PACT), and Parent Time.

Mrs. Kay Brown is the director. She and Mrs. Jean Jones of the Union Parish Chamber of Commerce introduced me to Wendy Comfort who they couldn't praise enough for her determination to better herself and become an English speaking American. After Wendy's application to sponsor her parents' immigration to America was turned down, Mrs. Brown and her husband assisted with the sponsorship, allowing her parents, Orlando Benevides and Mrs. Flora Benevides Zamora, to come to Bernice five years ago. Mrs. Benevides is now employed at the Even Start agency caring for the pre-school children of the women in the family literacy program.