ADRIAN - One day in 1997, Idali Feliciano, a Siena Heights College academic advisor, and a group of like-minded friends met in Adrian to discuss what they might do about what they perceived as an ignorant and unhealthy attitude toward ethnic diversity in Lenawee County.
After all, the mostly rural county is 91 percent white and a few years before there had been a cross burned at the home of an African-American family.
"We wondered how we could have an impact on eliminating racism and promote diversity," Ms. Feliciano said.
Born out of that meeting was an organization they named Cambios - Spanish for changes. In choosing the name, the group took as an inspiration words by Indian pacifist Mahatma Gandhi: "You must be the change you wish to see happen."
Next, the group had to come up with a plan. Since a number of Cambios' board members were educators, they settled on a diversity literature program for elementary school students.
"We were aware of what was missing in terms of children's literature. And research told us we had to start when children are young to expose them to diversity," said Ms. Feliciano, Cambios' director.
Seven years later, Cambios has distributed 50 books on diversity to 25 Lenawee County elementary schools, each one of which has been read to the students by their teachers or other, older students.
"We never dreamed it would have grown so quickly," Ms. Feliciano said.
Others have noticed.
On May 24, Cambios members will travel to Grand Rapids for the Governor's Service Awards banquet, where the organization is one of five finalists for the Exemplary Community Service Program award.
The recognition is well-deserved, according to Dr. Agnes Caldwell, an Adrian College so-ciology professor who teaches a course on race and ethnicity. For the past five years, Ms. Caldwell's students have served as Cambios readers with considerable success, gaining classroom credits for their effort.
"We talk about these issues, and we talk about solutions, but [my students] said they didn't have a sense that they were making any contributions," she said. "[Now], they have lived it, and they love it."
Sand Creek Junior/Senior High School teacher Ruth Lyons signed up with Cambios three years ago to give her 7th-grade students what she believed would be a rewarding experience. She hasn't been disappointed.
"My kids are learning how to read to younger children and [they] are finding out things culturally they didn't know," she said. "[Also], it's a way to get to younger students through students rather than teachers. It's a more comfortable and relaxed atmosphere."
As for the achieving Cambios' goal, Ms. Lyons believes the program is working.
"The key issue is awareness," she said. "We are a rural community, not a multicultural community. They need to be aware of other cultures. They are now aware of [them]."
Ms. Caldwell, looking for more concrete data on Cambios' performance, polled 200 elementary school students involved in the program and found what she termed surprising results.
"It was positive in every measure," she said. "It has reduced discriminating behavior and increased awareness of self-identity. It also has impacted the awareness of other cultures, and ethnic and racial groups.
"We think the result says a couple of things. The program has had a tremendous impact. And it's only once a week for half an hour. Can you imagine if it was talked about constantly, what an impact we could have? The potential is huge. Furthermore, this is a model relationship because the students are equal participants with the teachers and the community. It's a beautiful relationship."
Ms. Feleciano, who directed Cambios out of a pair of private homes until moving to an Adrian College office last year, said the program's acceptance in the community has made the effort worthwhile.
"We have been very welcomed, and it's because of the nature of what we do - giving books away and training volunteers to read [them] in the schools," she said.
Cambios programs have continued to expand. On occasion, the board brings in authors of the books it is distributing for readings.
"We want to make sure the children not only read the books but see authors of color. They are positive role models," Ms. Feleciano said.
Cambios also holds an annual banquet to honor its volunteers, a classy gesture, according to Ms. Caldwell.
Ms. Feleciano said generous donations from Cambios' main benefactors - the Dominican Sisters of Adrian and United Bank & Trust of Tecumseh - have allowed the organization to choose quality books and form partnerships with other groups, such as Adrian College, Siena Heights College, and the Lenawee County International Club.
"We had a need, and the public and educators have responded," she said.
Contact George J. Tanber at: