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Insurance office in Martinsburg to cater to Hispanics

December 26, 2004|by CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

MARTINSBURG, W.VA. - Veronica Hall didn't intend to work in the insurance industry and she didn't plan to stay in the United States after visiting her father here from her home in Argentina several years ago.

Now that she's found her niche - helping Hispanic residents in the Eastern Panhandle acclimate to life in a different country - Hall, 29, said she wouldn't want her life to be any different.

On Jan. 4, 2005, Hall will open officially what she said is the only insurance agency in West Virginia that caters to Hispanics. At 127 S. Queen St. in Martinsburg, the Nationwide Insurance office is a branch of Maiden Financial Inc.

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Hall, who only will employ in her office those who speak both English and Spanish, said around 2,000 Hispanic families live in Berkeley and Jefferson counties.

Although Hall also will serve English-only speaking clients, she believes the Hispanic population is growing. She hopes to one day exclusively offer her services to those residents.

"We will see when that's going to double," Hall said of the Hispanic population.

Strides are being made to help Hispanic families in the area, but work remains, she said.

A member of the Eastern Panhandle Hispanic Advocacy Coalition, Hall said a workshop put on by the group earlier this year drew at least 150 members of the Hispanic community. Among the issues discussed were health care and how to obtain a driver's license.

Hall and others also offer to help Hispanic residents accomplish other goals, like going through the homeowner's process.

Many speak English but feel more comfortable using their first language when it comes to obtaining services, Hall said.

Once a week, Hall heads to Charles Town Races & Slots to work with the Hispanic jockeys on any issues with which they need help. A "huge" Hispanic population is associated with the racetrack, Hall said.

When Hall asks Hispanic people why they chose to move here, two answers are common.

Many move here for jobs, while others are attracted to what, for now, is affordable housing.

Other aspects of the area also appeal to them, Hall said.

"I have to say the Hispanic population likes quieter, smaller towns for their kids to grow up," she said.

For the most part, local residents seem to be accepting of their Hispanic neighbors, Hall said.

Still, there are needs that are not being met.

Hall hopes to see more Hispanic businesses open, and many Hispanic residents have expressed a desire to see activities geared toward them. Winchester, Va., for example, offers an indoor soccer league for Hispanics, she said.

"You don't see a lot of that (type of activity available) in Martinsburg," she said.

A Spanish radio station also would be helpful, she said.

Other needs include working with Hispanics on immigration. Hall does not hesitate to admit a lot of illegal immigrants live here.

She also wants to make sure Hispanics know what the laws are, some of which are vastly different from those in their home countries.

Hispanics can sometimes get into trouble simply because they do not understand how the system works, Hall said.

It's a misconception to think that all Hispanics are alike, she said. As one of Hall's customers worded it: "They all put us into the same pot," Hall said of people's perceptions.

"I have never experienced any type of racism. But I hear stories," Hall said.

It's difficult to live in a community where one is not accepted, but Hall believes there's not too much intolerance here.

Progress is being made, she said.

Several local churches offer Spanish services, volunteer tutors teach English as a Second Language courses in the area and plans are under way to print Spanish Yellow Pages books, Hall said.

"I foresee a good future," she said.

In 1998, Hall came to the United States, where her father worked as a diplomat in Washington, D.C., to improve her English. Her fluent English is now accented by a lyrical Spanish lilt.

Hall decided to stay in the U.S. after meeting her husband. She later was recruited to work for Thomas Maiden, principal agent of Maiden Insurance.

Maiden, a member of the U.S. Naval Reserves, saw a need to open an insurance office for Hispanics after he went to Spain and suddenly realized firsthand what is feels like to be the fish out of water, Hall said.

Hall, whose background is in marketing and advertising, helped to organize a Hispanic festival in September. Many local businesses and agencies had informational booths set up at the fair - a sign the community wants to help, Hall believes.

"They wanted to be there. They wanted to help," she said. "I have to say I've seen nothing but good participation from the community."

On a personal level, Hall said she is happy she is able to help others.

"I am really excited," she said. "I do feel that I'm making a difference."

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