Students sit at tables and play Uno, their sandals tapping the floor. Large groups are ushered across streets and down sidewalks to the community pool where they learn to swim. A diploma is placed into each small hand at the graduation ceremony. Teachers speak fluently in Spanish and English. Students thrive in a strong community.
This is what makes the Bay Area Hispano Institute for Advancement, Inc., better known as BAHIA, such a unique organization. BAHIA opens its doors to children from all over the Bay Area. As the only Latino non-profit in the Bay Area that provides bilingual education and childcare full time, BAHIA’s services are hard to come by and in high demand. Their mission is to create a caring space where children can embrace their languages and emerge “as engaged contributors to a global society.”
“BAHIA is one of the only programs in the Bay Area that provides children the opportunity to learn, explore, and celebrate their culture, language, and traditions. We are very special and unique,” described Eva Flores, a teacher who has worked with the program for over 20 years.
BAHIA, Inc. was founded in 1975, originally under the name of Project VIDA. Located in a small duplex and with only 20 students enrolled, the organization gained its footing and began to build from there. The need for bilingual education programs was apparent in the numbers of parents registering their children for Project VIDA. Soon, the organization moved to a larger location and expanded the programs from there. By 1983, BAHIA had purchased an empty lot to run its toddler program, and continued expanding.
Isela Vasquez, a student at Berkeley High School (BHS) and a senior in Academic Choice (AC), attended both the preschool program and BAHIA’s summer program all throughout elementary school. After completing the program and once she was a little older, she returned as a staff member. “All the teachers know English, all the teachers know Spanish, and the students are being fostered to know both. I think [those services] are important because there is a high population of Latinos in the Bay Area, and especially in Berkeley,” said Vasquez. She described the community as tight-knit, and the program as family-based. “It showed you organization, it showed you community, and it provided opportunities,” she said.
This type of program is not one that most cities or even states have, but the long waitlists at BAHIA prove that these services are necessary. Two years before the opening of the toddler program, the waitlist was already 200 names long, with only 16 slots available. The organization works to provide the best resources to the families that it can take on, but it can only take on so many.
“BAHIA has always been at the service of families. We are constantly trying to abide by our strong commitment to its community and the children,” said Flores. This demonstrated that the need for a bilingual program similar to BAHIA is of increasing need in the Berkeley community. “[BAHIA’s] mission to integrate both languages to all races and ethnicities is super important,” Vasquez agreed.
In addition to providing much-needed services, the community at BAHIA is like no other. Students often go through the preschool programs, Centro VIDA or La Academia de BAHIA together, which fosters an environment of closeness. “Because a lot of the students were from the same preschools for the most part, it was like growing up together,” reminisced Vasquez. She also remembered the effect that the teachers had on her and her peers. “All the teachers are incredible, amazing, loving, and supportive,” she explained.
“BAHIA’s mission resembles a great opportunity for families to reinforce and celebrate their culture and values,” said Flores. The program continues to thrive to this day, serving many families in the Bay Area. “It was a great program to be a part of. If anyone from Berkeley High has younger siblings, I would encourage them to enroll in BAHIA and the other programs like Centro VIDA and Academia,” said Vasquez.