Spcs. Gabriel Kirk and Javier Roman stand in uniform and masks posing at food drive up tent.

Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Thomas Vega, Ohio National Guard Public Affairs

Spcs. Gabriel Kirk (left) and Javier Roman, Soldiers 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. Kirk, a chaplain assistant, works as an interpreter in his civilian occupations 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, has also been serving as an interpreter at the food bank. In his civilian occupation, Roman works as nurse where he focuses on children’s mental health.

Ohio Guard members build bridges over language barriers at food bank

Story by 1st Lt. Caroline Pirchner, Ohio National Guard Public Affairs

COLUMBUS, Ohio (06/28/20)

Members of the Ohio National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 134th Field Artillery Regiment have been supporting the Mid-Ohio Foodbank’s packaging and distribution operations throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, providing food to families in need on a daily basis.

For two Soldiers in particular, distributing food is not the only critical task at the food bank.

Spc. Javier Roman, a fire control specialist, and Spc. Gabriel Kirk, a chaplain assistant, have been serving as interpreters during check-in and drive-thru operations 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.

Roman, whose first language is Spanish, says it’s just second nature to him, and sometimes, it seems like nearly every other car contains a Spanish-speaking family. His desire to serve Ohio and the Spanish-speaking communities during the pandemic is actually what drove him to extend his contract with the Ohio Army National Guard. “Seeing someone that speaks their language, it brightens their day a little bit more,” Roman said. “It shows that someone’s here to help.”

Roman is a nurse working in children’s mental health in his civilian career, and uses those skills at the food bank to help ease the anxiety of families who visit the primarily English-speaking operation.

“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,” Kirk 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 by also understanding how to use different techniques and vocabulary needed for specific situations.

Prior to working as an interpreter, Kirk also worked as a Spanish teacher at a high school just down the road from the Mid-Ohio 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 local food banks and regional warehouses throughout the state, talked Kirk into joining the Guard, which he did 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 his fellow Soldiers and his state.

He and Roman are a reflection of the foundational values and unique skill sets within the Ohio National Guard, and the benefits diversity brings to the organization.

“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.”