Playing soccer with college students twice their size, 5-year-old Diego and his brother Alex, 7, fell down in a heap. The boys laughed, got up off the grass and ran back to chasing the ball in a herd of big kids and little kids.

It may be harder playing with college students, Alex said, "But it's fun."

About 30 people — half Montana State University students and half children from local Hispanic families — came together Sunday afternoon for a friendly, barefoot soccer game, hula hoop contest and snacks.

The outing was organized by a new MSU student group called Tias y Tios. A big brothers sort of program, it was created so college students could help children from the Gallatin Valley's largely invisible Spanish-speaking immigrant community.

"They just run circles around you — it's absolutely hilarious," said John Rios, 31, a sociology and liberal studies major and one of the group's first volunteers. "I really enjoy doing this. It's definitely the high point of my week."

Tias y Tios, Spanish for aunts and uncles, was started this year by 22-year-old Jenna and Jessa Thiel, identical twins who share a passion for helping people at the bottom of society.

"Our Tias y Tios motto is ‘Open Hearts, Open Minds,'" Jenna said. "Once you put a face to this very faceless issue, things change.

"Children of these families internalize a lot of stresses and struggles."

Latino kids as young as 8 deal with issues like discrimination, financial instability, depression and isolation, Jessa said. The children often bear a lot of responsibility if they become their family's translators.

Over the past several months, the Tias y Tios volunteers have taken kids to places many had never been before, like the Museum of the Rockies, the MSU duck pond, Bozeman Library, MSU bowling alley and the International Children's Fair at Bogert Park. There MSU's international students gave hundreds of kids from all over Bozeman a chance to experience Bollywood dancing, African mask-making and aikido.

This summer Tias & Tios raised scholarship money so Hispanic children could go to the Swim Center or summer camps put on by groups like Equinox Theatre, rather than sit home because their parents didn't know about or couldn't afford such activities.

"It was wonderful. These children were so excited to participate and make new friends," Jenna said. "Two girls who went to Equinox spent last summer watching TV for up to six hours a day, or watching their mother work at a restaurant. (This summer) we saw so much personal growth and self-esteem. It was really exciting."

They plan to start a new program, Tutor with Tia, to help children with school work or trips to the library. Their parents may not have the academic skills to help their kids once they're past the elementary level.

Asked about her experience at school, one Mexican-born girl with a sunny disposition said other students have bullied her there.

"Just because you're Mexican, they say every Mexican is illegal. I ignore them," she said, walking with a college student who is becoming her friend. "I feel safe here. Real safe."

One middle-aged Latino mother, who works as a cook and is taking English lessons, was willing to talk about Tias y Tios if she could remain anonymous. She said through a translator that it is a good thing, helping her children to open up, participate and grow. Asked what she'd like people in Bozeman to understand about the Hispanic community, she spoke with passion in her voice.

"That we're human," the mother said. "We think and we feel, and we hurt. And we're all just people. We're all just equal."

Why don't you go back home

Dakota, a white Siberian husky, is a big hit at Tias y Tios events.

The Hispanic children pet and hug and climb all over him.

"I really love Dakota," said Kenia, a sixth-grader.

Dakota's owner, Lauren Sharp, 22, a sociology major and Spanish minor, said she volunteers with Tias y Tios because she just got back from studying aboard in Ecuador. She's thinking of going into the Peace Corps or working for a Latin America nonprofit.

The MSU student volunteers come largely from sociology, leadership and honors classes.

Dustin Kuipers, 27, a liberal studies major from Belgrade, said this is the first time in college that he could go out and do community service for a class instead of just reading a book.

Ryan Corbey, 26, a sociology major, said he wanted to keep his Spanish up and to "keep that volunteer thing going. It's good for the soul."

Student Oneida Eudave, 18, knows first-hand the hostility Hispanic families sometimes face. Born in Arizona to parents from Mexico, she and her family moved to Alaska and then to Belgrade.

"I feel like a lot of people are accepting," Eudave said. Still, "when we're talking Spanish, they all turn towards you."

She recalled shopping one day at Wal-Mart with her mother and talking in Spanish.

"A lady was looking at me all weird. She said, ‘Why don't you go back to your country,' like a whisper. I was so mad."

Her sister, Yanet Eudave, 19, a community health major, found the woman shopper and gave her a piece of her mind.

"This is a free country!" Yanet told the woman. "I was actually born in the United States. I speak another language — it doesn't mean I don't have a right to be here. ... That's what the United States is all about!"

That's one reason she joined Tias y Tios, Yanet said. "It motivates me to help out the children and help with the struggles they have."

Don't ask, don't tell

The Thiel twins take a don't-ask, don't-tell approach to the question of whether the Hispanic families they work with are in the United States legally or illegally.

"We don't care," Jenna said, "so we don't know."

While news stories about law enforcement arrests describe Latino immigrants as illegal aliens, undocumented workers or members of dangerous Mexican drug gangs, the sisters insisted that most of those arrested here have been harmless, hardworking people, no different from previous American immigrants.

"It was families trying to get by, trying to give their children a better life than they had," Jessa said.

Latino workers were drawn here by the building boom at Big Sky and the Yellowstone Club, Jessa said. The boom is over, but many families liked Montana and stayed for the same reasons other people do. It's a healthy, safe place to raise a family, and people don't have to lock their doors.

Father Val Zdilla of Resurrection Parish Church said he started Spanish-language Mass four or five years ago. Around 75 to 120 attend the monthly service, he said, including MSU international students and people learning Spanish.

Tias y Tios grew out of the Thiel sisters' experiences in their own family, studying abroad and in MSU sociology assistant professor Leah Schmalzbauer's classes.

Schmalzbauer required students in last spring's class on migration to do 10 hours of volunteer work as a service-learning project, so students could learn by putting ideas into action.

The Thiel twins decided to start Tias y Tios, modeled after a Rotary International nonprofit that Jenna volunteered with last year in Chile. There she worked with foster children in the poorest slums of Valparaiso.

The sisters said they learned that Schmalzbauer's mental health surveys of Latino immigrants in Southwest Montana have found families have two major concerns — the isolation felt by women who don't speak English and stress on their kids.

"We've traveled all over the world and done community service in Peru and Chile," Jenna said. "It's great to go out and change the world, but the world is right here. We have to change Bozeman."

"Change hearts and minds right here," Jessa said.

It took a long time for the twins to gain the trust of Latino parents.

"We went to so many birthdays, dinners, parties and Catholic Mass — and we're not Catholic," Jessa said.

They did it, Jenna said, "To let them know we love and care about them."

Seeing the contrast between the Hispanic families' lives and their own, the Thiel sisters said they know how much they take for granted, like affluence and citizenship.

"We're realizing we have such a great amount of unearned privilege," Jessa said, "and they have unearned hardship they have to endure every day."

They said they know of Hispanic laborers who work at a Gallatin Valley farm 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for $4 an hour.

"We see them work harder than most people we know," Jenna said. "They're trying to raise their children, in the face of adversity, and at the end of the day they're happy. They're still smiling, excited about life."

Sisterhood is powerful

Apart, the Thiel sisters seem like determined young women. Together, the twins seem like a force of nature.

They described themselves as "innovative, creative, passionate."

"A little intense," Jenna said and laughed

As identical twins, they're almost impossible to tell apart. Both have dyed their blond hair black. They favor hippie-style long skirts, tie-dye T-shirts and head scarves. Both are vivacious, energetic and outgoing.

One small difference: Jenna wears a nose ring on the right, Jessa on the left.

"We are best friends," Jessa said. "Life is better shared."

The sisters grew up in the Flathead Valley, where their middle-class family moved from California. Their dad was a developer and their mom a social worker, "a bleeding heart," the sisters said.

Their mother opened their home as an emergency shelter for foster kids, who had been neglected or came from unstable families or drug-addicted parents. The Thiel family of three children grew to six children as their mother fell in love with and adopted three foster kids.

The twins, state champion soccer teammates and swimmers with near-perfect grades, planned to attend a private college in Oregon. But they decided they couldn't go that far from home.

"We're the oldest of six — we felt our brothers and sisters needed us," Jenna said.

So they chose MSU, entered its honors program and found they loved their "fantastic" professors, and the hiking, skiing and ice climbing.

"There's no other place we'd rather we studied," Jenna said. "We're absolutely in love with Bozeman."

Jenna graduated in May in global and multicultural studies, with a second major in Spanish. Jessa will graduate this semester in global and multicultural studies, with a minor in gender studies.

For starting Tias y Tios and other volunteer work, the sisters were named last spring by the MSU Women's Center as two of its 15 "Student Heroes."

Now the sisters are applying for programs so they can keep working together. Both want to earn Ph.D.s studying Latino migrant families, and combine research, teaching and community activism.

"Something Jessa and I always say," Jenna said, "is, Knowledge is important — action is impressive."

Gail Schontzler can be reached at or 582-2633.