Feature   Defense News

Ohio Guardsmen Transcend Language Barriers at Food Bank

July 2, 2020 | BY Army 1st Lt. Caroline Pirchner

Soldiers from the Ohio National Guard's 1st Battalion, 134th Field Artillery Regiment have been supporting the Mid-Ohio Foodbank's packaging and distribution operations to help families in need throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

A soldier directing traffic at an Ohio food bank.
Directing Traffic
Army Spc. Gabriel Kirk, a chaplain assistant with the Ohio Army National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 134th Field Artillery Regiment, directs traffic at Mid-Ohio Foodbank in Columbus, Ohio, June 19, 2020. Kirk, who is a Spanish interpreter in his civilian occupation, has been integral to communicating with the large number of Spanish-speaking families coming through the food bank’s distribution lines during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Photo By: Army Sgt. 1st Class Thomas Vega, Ohio Army National Guard
VIRIN: 200619-Z-NN165-1002A

For two soldiers in particular, the skills they bring from their civilian life proved just as critical as distributing food at the food bank.

Army Spcs. Javier Roman, a fire control specialist, and Gabriel Kirk, a chaplain assistant, have been serving as interpreters for the large Hispanic population that resides in the food bank's service region. During food bank operations, Roman and Kirk provide Spanish-speaking families critical information to effectively receive the food they need, while also instilling confidence in them to feel comfortable to return for additional help.

Seeing someone that speaks their language, it brightens their day a little bit more. It shows that someone's here to help.''
Army Spc. Javier Roman, Ohio National Guard

Roman, whose first language is Spanish, said it's just second nature to him and that sometimes it seems as if 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, he said.

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

In his civilian career, Roman is a nurse who works in children's mental health. He uses the skills acquired in his civilian job to help ease the anxiety of families who visit the primarily English-speaking food bank.

A soldier registering people at an Ohio food bank.
Taking Notes
Army Spc. Javier Roman, a fire control specialist with the Ohio Army National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 134th Field Artillery Regiment, registers people at the Mid-Ohio Foodbank in Columbus, Ohio, June 19, 2020. Roman, whose first language is Spanish, has been serving as an interpreter for the large number of Spanish-speaking families coming through the food bank’s distribution lines during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Photo By: Army Sgt. 1st Class Thomas Vega, Ohio Army National Guard
VIRIN: 200619-Z-NN165-1001A

"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, on the other hand, became fluent in Spanish strictly from studying the language himself. He is proud to help the Spanish-speaking community in such a unique way.

"They're usually a little bit shocked to see that I speak Spanish to them," he said. "They really appreciate non-native speakers learning and speaking with them."

On the civilian side, Kirk works as an interpreter for Columbus, Ohio-based ASIST Translation and Interpreting Services, translating for legal, medical and social services. His dynamic skill set allows him to effectively communicate with these families, not just by using the language, but also by understanding how to use different techniques and vocabulary needed for specific situations.

Soldiers posing for a photo at an Ohio food bank.
Guardsmen Pose
Army Spcs. Gabriel Kirk, left, and Javier Roman, right, assigned to the Ohio National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 134th Field Artillery Regiment, pose for a photo at the Mid-Ohio Foodbank in Grove City, Ohio, June 19, 2020. Kirk, a chaplain assistant, works as an interpreter in his civilian occupation and has been serving as an interpreter for the large number of Spanish-speaking families coming through the food bank’s distribution lines during the COVID-19 pandemic. Roman, a fire control specialist whose first language is Spanish, also has been serving as an interpreter at the food bank.
Photo By: Army Sgt. 1st Class Thomas Vega, Ohio Army National Guard
VIRIN: 200619-A-NN165-1003A

Prior to working as an interpreter, Kirk also worked as a Spanish teacher at a high school just down the road from the food bank. One of his former students, who is also an Ohio National Guard soldier and supporting the food bank mission at one of 14 food banks and regional warehouses throughout the state, talked Kirk into joining the guard 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 also his fellow soldiers and his state.

"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."

(Army 1st Lt. Caroline Pirchner is assigned to the Ohio National Guard.)