Couples danced to salsa music during a drive-through takeout dinner event held to thank donors of SLI. 

Instead of its typical Noche de Salsa Event, the Scholars Latino Initiative (SLI) held a drive-through takeout dinner event with salsa dancers under dazzling lights inside a local car dealership. 

SLI is a nonprofit organization that helps create college opportunities for Latino students in the Harrisonburg area. Christopher Kurtz, the director of development, said its original event was planned for April and was put on hold when COVID-19 hit. 

“Somebody realized ‘Well hey we could do this drive-through,’” Kurtz said. “We realized we could move ahead with this modified format.” 

On Saturday, cars lined up to drive through the service garage of Steven Toyota and marveled at two couples dancing to salsa music across from glittering multicolored lights. At the end of the long garage, tables were positioned to give guests their order of local Salvadorian food from Salgado's Pupuseria y Taqueria. 

Kurtz said Noche de Salsa is a way for SLI leadership to both thank donors and celebrate and acknowledge the hard work of the students and those who support them. Normally, the event is held in the Steven Toyota showroom on S Main Street with a buffet from Latino-owned restaurants, with time for attendees to salsa dance.

“It’s just really a fun time to gather and connect with people who are passionate about supporting the scholars that we serve,” Kurtz said. 

SLI was established in 2012 and has branches in Harrisonburg, Winchester and Richmond. The organization provides academic programming, leadership development and mentorships for high school students, in conjunction with both university and high school staff. 

“We have a holistic approach to the student,” Karina Kline-Gabel, vice-chair of the SLI board of directors said. “We want them to achieve their goals, but we also want to help them find their place in the world.” 

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Carlos Alemán, the program director for academic and leadership development and associate professor of communication studies, said SLI in Harrisonburg works with promising Latino students who are first-generation immigrants and college students and have minimal financial support. 

“We provide a level of support with the individual student that they’re not ordinarily getting,” Alemán said. 

Alemán said because of COVID-19, the nonprofit hasn’t been able to carry out its normal academic and leadership programming, but its members have been able to bring high school students to remote college programs, like speakers that have used Zoom to speak to JMU students. Although its normal functions couldn’t happen, SLI still wanted to give a sense of what its event is normally like.

“We wanted to send the message that ‘Hey, we are continuing to keep doing what we’re doing and we ask that you all continue to keep supporting as well,’” Kline-Gabel said. 

Alemán also said many mentors are JMU students and there’s a new group at JMU called SLI-at-JMU. Aliyah Hall, a junior media arts and design major and president of SLI-at-JMU, said the organization helps JMU students connect to SLI, so they can be mentors for SLI students. 

The funds from Noche de Salsa will go toward these student programs as well as student scholarships, money for students to be able to purchase laptops and funds for dual enrollment tuition support. Alemán said that although it was a disappointment to not be able to have Noche de Salsa as normal, it allowed them to refocus on what the event was truly about. 

“It is really about showing appreciation,” Alemán said. “Showing appreciation to those who donated, showing appreciation to the teachers.”

Alemán, Kurtz and Kline-Gabel all highlighted the disparities that the Latino population face, especially during COVID-19. They said the Latino population is being disproportionately affected. Alemán highlighted the many barriers that SLI students are facing, like working 30-hour work weeks. 

“Young students today can be so much more resilient,” Alemán said. “That’s an inspirational thing to watch when students today …  see a roadblock … they consider there’s another way to get around this.” 

Alemán said Harrisonburg needs more organizations that function on goodwill, collaborative spirit and have the community’s best interest in mind. He said that in order for the JMU community to help create change in immigrant communities, they have to listen. 

“Students in the immigrant community want support, but they don't want JMU to come up and save them,” Alemán said. “When we listen … that’s real community changing because it’s acknowledging what’s already a community strength and leveraging it in a way that benefits all.”

Contact Ashlyn Campbell at For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.