Skip to main content

VOLAR: Translating Needs into Action

VOLAR volunteer
VOLAR volunteer Amanda Smith translates for clients at the Urban Ministries Center. Photo credit: Marc Hall.

By many measures, Raleigh is one of America’s fastest-growing cities.

Hispanics factor among the reasons for that growth: according to U.S. Census data, the percentage of people identifying as Hispanic or Latino in Raleigh grew from seven to 11.4 percent between 2000 and 2010, a trend that shows no signs of slowing.

With that explosive growth comes new challenges. New Spanish-speaking residents can struggle to interact with schools, government agencies and even social service providers.

As Shelley Garrigan, an associate professor, and James McConnell, a senior lecturer in NC State’s Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, became acutely aware of these challenges, students were approaching them, looking for opportunities to practice their Spanish skills outside the classroom.

Garrigan and McConnell then reached out to community organizations to gauge the need for volunteers, and in 2012, with the help of a $10,000 NC State University Extension, Engagement and Economic Development Seed Grant, they created VOLAR, or Voluntarios Ahora en Raleigh, a Spanish word meaning “to fly.”

VOLAR matches Spanish-speaking students with community organizations in Raleigh who need translators.

“There wasn’t a direct connection between our pool of willing volunteers and the organizations who needed our help,” McConnell said. “We created VOLAR in order to organize and centralize our resources to respond to the needs of the community.”

The City of Raleigh Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources Department was VOLAR’s first community partner in 2012. Since then, VOLAR volunteers have assisted at a variety of schools and charitable organizations and at the Mexican Consulate of Raleigh. And VOLAR maintains a strong relationship with the City of Raleigh.

“It has been so beneficial to have a resource of reliable, responsible volunteers who are fully engaged in helping the community,” Monica Quechol-Bradley, a City of Raleigh recreation program director, wrote in a letter endorsing VOLAR in its successful nomination for the Opal Mann Green Engagement and Scholarship Award.

VOLAR’s purpose is twofold: its student volunteers provide needed assistance to an under-served community; and in turn, those students gain valuable real-world Spanish-speaking experience, along with exposure to Raleigh’s Hispanic culture.

As VOLAR student volunteers translate at parent-teacher conferences, help patients check in at community clinics, and mentor Hispanic children in after-school programs, their interactions with non-English speakers help them hone their Spanish skills and let them practice their communication skills in meaningful ways.

Debbie Kane, who graduated from NC State during VOLAR’s first year and now serves as coordinator for the organization, said the experience is comparable in part to studying abroad in a Spanish-speaking country.

“Not every student has the opportunity to study abroad, so VOLAR has some of those benefits,” Kane said. “Also, students who have done a study abroad want to continue speaking Spanish outside the classroom when they come back. They don’t want to lose what they gained in study abroad.”

Garrigan said that thanks to positive word-of-mouth and support among the Spanish faculty, VOLAR has been able to maintain a healthy stable of Spanish-speaking student volunteers. She is sure of one thing: opportunities to assist with Raleigh’s Hispanic population will continue to be plentiful.

For more information, contact VOLAR at or visit the organization’s website.

By Blake Samanas, Web Content Writer