What began in 2001 with one person asking, what can we do to help students after school in Atlanta, Georgia, has flourished over the past two decades into LaAmistad Inc. Amistad is Spanish for friendship. In this case, LaAmistad is the name of a thriving, growing organization whose hallmark is finding a way to reach every member of the families they serve. We can only wonder if Bill Maness, Director of The Gym at Peachtree Presbyterian where it all started, could have imagined that his dream would one day grow to become after-school programs at twelve different locations. Or that the parents of the community’s children would eventually attend multiple locations to learn English as their second language, even as the demand for both programs is more significant than ever.
The true secret to LaAmistad’s success over the years in serving thousands of families is its team members’ commitment to genuinely caring about every person they touch and striving for excellence. The dedication is across the board and includes LaAmistad’s staff and community partners. Also, program funders not only help sustain the work financially. They join in by donating their time personally and rolling up their sleeves to help as volunteers. Funders say the experience gained through these mentoring opportunities has been the most beneficial. They can see firsthand and understand how their financial assistance makes a tangible change in people’s lives and the return on their investment is beyond their wildest expectations.
“The knowledge that a volunteer cares about a student’s success inspires gains in their academic performance, language fluency, and overall quality of life,” says Cat McAfee, Executive Director. “Proof of this is stories like that of Vanessa C., who initially attended LaAmistad’s after-school program as a first-grader. Her parents migrated to the United States from Mexico, and they made sure that Vanessa continued in our programs through high school. They also enrolled Vanessa’s siblings, and then Mom took our ESL course and graduated successfully. After Vanessa earns her college degree, we dream that she might come back and become a part of LaAmistad’s team. Now that would be exciting and a great example for other young people and families,” adds McAfee.
A recent major demonstration of LaAmistad’s keen understanding of its critical role for the Latino communities the organization serves happened when COVID19 led to massive school closures. “This meant that many of the students who depend on school lunches would have missed out on one or more of the most critical meals of their day,” recalls McAfee. “We adapted our school transportation bus into a meal delivery vehicle to reach and nourish our school-age students. During the past two years, we delivered more than 40,000 meals. This is a major achievement, and I am grateful to everyone who made this possible,” adds McAfee.
Atlanta is projected to continue being one of the nation’s fastest-growing metropolitan regions with a robust Latino presence in virtually every sector of its economy. LaAmistad is poised to grow with this population, which is younger, more mobile, and eager to gain an education, plus a good-paying job that provides for its families and ensures their future. Traditional county and local government agencies realize that reaching and serving this population segment presents both a challenge and an opportunity. Community education programs on such issues as preventative health care can help stem the need for more expensive acute care. Also, housing assistance and nutrition programs work best when coordinated with community agencies on the ground where the need is greatest. Local safety nets now include faith-based, secular, and business partners working together to forge solutions that address specific needs systematically.
LaAmistad has made tremendous strides by meeting stakeholders where they live and work. Sometimes the initial outreach and contact may be at a neighborhood church or social services distribution center. “The first step is building trust with new families, many of whom have heard of LaAmistad but may not know how to enroll or apply,” says Brendon Jaramillo, LaAmistad’s Communications Manager. “We are moving now into being very laser-focused with our messaging so that we can locate, identify and engage with multi-generational Latino households and be able to provide a value proposition for each member to become involved. Our access to technology enables us to geo-fence a specific five-mile radius and target whom we reach and what we say. By enabling our leadership and team to analyze big data collaboratively, we are able to leverage all of our resources and maximize our quality,” adds Jaramillo.
At the same time, LaAmistad is constantly taking the pulse of critical people in its service family. Jaramillo continues by saying, “I think one of the most vital activities we invest in involves constantly surveying students, volunteers, and staff asking how we can improve programs? Also, how can we make our communication processes smoother, better, and continuous? As importantly, LaAmistad is always interested in being on the leading edge of education, so we are always working to improve the learning materials we utilize at every level.” McAfee affirms that strategy and sees the opportunity to expand efficiently and effectively as LaAmistad increases its move to tap into new technological pools of knowledge. “Our decision-making remains data-driven, as we utilize the most current research and practices to inform the services we provide. We see both the need and the space to provide services beyond Metro Atlanta into other regions of Georgia and even beyond. We will examine each opportunity on its merit to see whether it aligns with our vision for the future to deliver educational services through a holistic approach. LaAmistad wants to understand and respond to all those factors that impact both school-age and adult students. Another cornerstone of LaAmistad we pledge to continue supporting is being an organization that welcomes and fully embraces all who wish to volunteer and be active agents of change for the better in their communities. Progress takes place incrementally, and every volunteer helps along the way. In this way, we can be true to the mission Bill Maness envisioned from the beginning and meet our commitment today to our wonderful sponsors and program partners who help sustain this work,” she adds.
To learn more about LaAmistad, check out their website here.