Reaching Out to Help Opportunity Youth: CSS Forges a Success Story in Chicago

Reaching Out to Help Opportunity Youth: CSS Forges a Success Story in Chicago

It takes authentic passion and compassion about serving communities to make transformative change in places like Little Village, a popular neighborhood located in the heart of Chicago, Illinois. Its more than 90,000 residents, primarily immigrants, is where Central States SER (CSS) is making a dramatic impact, especially among opportunity youth ages 16-24. The term is used in describing young men and women who dropped out of school, are unemployed or underemployed, and need individualized wrap-around services to prepare for today’s workforce. Chicago’s gang activity is massive and very prevalent in Little Village, inevitably touching the lives of every resident. CSS youth staff are intimately knowledgeable in serving this particular population. Indeed, this is the setting where the team at CSS makes it their life’s mission to see beyond the person sitting in front of them today and instead envision how SER can transform their futures.

“Their work revolves around the people facing challenging situations every day,” says Manuela M. Zarate, Vice-President and Chief Operations Officer of SER Metro Detroit (SMD). “We all realize that we share many of the same beliefs and commitments to serving our community. For us, making an impact in the neighborhoods is being right where the people are; being where they live and work, so they see you every day, not in remote executive offices on State Street or Michigan Avenue in Downtown Chicago. CSS is embedded in communities like Little Village or reaching across Greater Chicago, Cook and Kane Counties, and the State of Illinois at large. CSS and SERCO in Illinois offer a wide range of services for youth and adults of all ages. These include after-school tutoring and mentoring, GED, vocational and pre-apprenticeship training; in partnership with Apple, we offer Coding and STEM, among many other services. SERCO in Illinois is the South Suburban American Jobs Center operator in North Riverside, Il, and a training partner of the Kane County Workforce Board in Aurora, Il. We are essentially among the people we serve,” she adds. For Zarate, that same clear focus of purpose continues to be a hallmark of her career and understanding of what it means to help an individual who walks into a SER site today. “I say to our staff, always look at the person that’s coming in for a service with care and respect. That’s the only way you’re going to be able to assess their needs – by caring truly. You have to make sure that we not only look at the immediate needs, but how can we open additional opportunities for that person? The answer may come, not just through the person sitting in front of you; rather, it may be that we need to help the family to address other, underlying challenges they are facing,” she adds.

The Little Village team at SER is focused on outreach and education within one of America’s most diverse inner-city neighborhoods in the Midwest. Team members attribute the successes of CSS to understanding firsthand what residents need and the services that can help address those needs. “As servant leaders and role models, we have to remember who our customers are and what they expect from us. This purpose is why we are here and entrusted with public funding. This work is how we meet our responsibilities,” says Zarate.

Zarate says CSS and SERCO in Illinois have achieved respect for consistently meeting and exceeding the benchmarks of program performance. Its stakeholder partners include the State of Illinois, the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership, the City of Chicago, the Illinois Department of Human Services, the Kane County Workforce Board, and many other governmental agencies, foundations, and philanthropists. “We have to be accountable to them while at the same time remembering that the most important measures of our work are the results that we see in the people we serve,” she adds.

Zarate cites one example of that holistic approach to community service that now includes offering more than 100 different social service programs and services across a broad spectrum. “We have one particular program that transformed our service delivery model through a grant we received back in 2008 to start the Center for Working Families.

The project is a financial education program that acts as an umbrella incorporating financial literacy and education, income supports, and workforce development into every service and program we offer. These services are available to the community at large. In this program, we take a deep dive into the participant’s financial needs and explore additional economic supports they might need. We then qualify our participants for the most suitable services: financial aid, public support, and a comprehensive financial education package offered in partnership with partner financial institutions while working towards their self-sufficiency. The goal is to help them through transformative change that breaks a socio-economic cycle so they can become self-sustaining long-term.”

Zarate and the CSS leadership team share another passion readily apparent to anyone who speaks with them. They see their role in their work as planting seeds of social change for future generations. “In Chicago, I know we are making an impact beginning with staff,” says Zarate. “Many of them are former program participants and come out of challenging backgrounds themselves, so they know in very personal terms the kind of help our customers are desperately seeking, and they do everything they can to reach out and take the hand that the system has often slapped away. We may well be the first and only people who have ever said to that young man or woman, I believe in you, or I know you can do it. Those simple gestures can mean so much to people, and we never know when we will have that opportunity.”

Manuela M. Zarate and the CSS leadership team exemplify the true spirit of people serving people. Zarate’s journey from a young student applicant to eventually becoming one of the organization’s top leaders results from answering a personal calling of caring for others. “At SER, we are all innovators, so we continuously reinvent ourselves. Together, we will continue to lead SER to be consistently present and relevant to the needs of those we serve. So, even if the entire world was employed and well trained, we can be sure to find a way to provide needed services. This is because people’s lives are always changing, and human nature is to want to improve and advance,” concludes Zarate.
With the dedication of that caliber, there is no doubt that Little Village and Greater Chicago will continue to benefit from the services of Central States SER.

SER National Gives Thanks for America’s Bounty and Blessings

SER National Gives Thanks for America’s Bounty and Blessings


Nation’s Service-Employment-Redevelopment Network Invites Us To Express Gratitude For Those Who Have Helped Us Endure

Irving, TX – Ignacio Salazar, SER National Chief Executive Officer, issued the following statement as we gather with loved ones to celebrate Thanksgiving Day, each in our way and place but all with a deep sense of heartfelt gratitude at this time.

“It was this time last year that our nation faced one of its most significant tests in our lifetimes as the pandemic raged and tens of thousands of people filled hospital beds as uncertainty loomed before us. Those were difficult days when celebrating Thanksgiving meant young and old gathering and perhaps endangering the well-being of family members and close friends. So many of us decided to forego the special celebration, and instead, we shared the day virtually or reflected and prayed in our personal private space.

Now, twelve months later, much has changed, and we have the opportunity to come together again. This Thanksgiving Day, we can say thank you for all that has happened to transform the darkness of our fears into the bright dawn of hope for our nation and the world. Irrespective of our spiritual walk and faith, we can as kindred spirits acknowledge each other, even if still from behind a mask or a safe social distance. We are here, alive, which is in itself the most remarkable single gift. Now, we can use each day more intentionally to make our world better, more loving, and considerate.

Also, we can express our gratitude to the doctors, nurses, and every single health care provider for being the guardians who ventured out every day to care for us and did everything they could for those they could not save. We can thank the first responders who faithfully reported to their police or fire stations and patrolled or stood watch to keep us safe from harm as we remained behind closed doors. And yes, we can say a heartfelt thank you to the millions of farmworkers, meatpackers, warehouse crews, truckers, grocery store stockers, and cashiers who made sure America was nourished.

Yes, we are a bountiful nation made stronger by the confluence of our gifts, skills, and experiences. We are also abundantly blessed because our founders foresaw times of trials and tribulation and created the framework for us to endure and prevail. The most significant expression of our gratitude is to protect that which unites us across our great land. May we on this Thanksgiving Day rededicate ourselves to America’s promise for future generations of all cultures and the assurance of freedom and liberty for all.”

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About SER Jobs for Progress National, Inc. – “Cultivating America’s Greatest Resource: People”

The SER Network of Affiliates serves over 1,000,000 people annually. SER has locations throughout the country, in more than 24 states and 200 sites. The SER Network provides a variety of comprehensive programs, including housing, youth services, GED classes, English language acquisition, early childhood education, older Americans training, women entrepreneurship, Science-Technology-Engineering-Math (STEM), assistance for military Veterans, operations of workforce centers nationally, plus assisting and placing thousands of qualified men and women in unsubsidized employment.

SER National Pays Tribute to Colin Powell, an Enduring American Leader

SER National Pays Tribute to Colin Powell, an Enduring American Leader


Nation’s Service-Employment-Redevelopment Network Notes His Rise from Poverty to Pinnacle of Military and Diplomatic Service

Irving, TX – Ignacio Salazar, SER National Chief Executive Officer, today issued the following statement in acknowledgment of the passing of General Colin Powell. He was 84. The former U.S. Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff served multiple presidential administrations and made a lasting impact on U.S. foreign policy.

“Our country has lost a modern historical figure whose legacy will endure for generations. His life is an example of service to country through the most challenging times, yet always with uncompromising integrity. General Powell placed himself squarely at the forefront of accountability in every decision he ever made and understood the weightiness of leadership. He was first, foremost, and always a soldier. His character and demeanor reflected that he understood his every action and word would be an inspiration to some and scrutinized by others.

There are many firsts historians will record about General Powell. He was the first Black national security adviser, first African American chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and first Black U.S. secretary of state. However, the other, perhaps lesser-known part of his life is his determination, work ethic, and perseverance lifted him to the summits of power. His path was not carved out or laid out in front of him. Instead, he was the son of immigrants who joined the R.O.T.C. at 21 after growing up in the South Bronx and going to City College of New York. He joined the Army soon after it was desegregated and served two tours in Vietnam. From there, he would go on to a 35-year military career.

This was the cornerstone of every post he accepted and every mission he carried out; he earned distinction through quiet, selfless service. Twice, he was bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor for service to our country. May every American salute this loyal soldier as he is laid to rest and remember him for his courage to lead, and in so doing, showing others the way forward.”

SER National and Latino Leaders Pay Tribute to Pedro Viera, Former SER President, Upon His Passing

SER National and Latino Leaders Pay Tribute to Pedro Viera, Former SER President, Upon His Passing


Nation’s Service-Employment-Redevelopment Network Honors Community Trailblazer, Visionary, and Lifelong Advocate

Irving, TX – SER National today issued the following statement on the passing of a beloved, respected friend and community champion, 68-year-old Pedro Luis Viera Marrero. The former SER National President from 1988 to 1996 was working in Guayaquil, Ecuador, when doctors say he suffered a fatal heart attack on October 9, 2021. His primary home was Coppell, Texas, where he lived with his wife and family.

“We are heartbroken over the sudden loss of a dear, wonderful friend and colleague,” says Ignacio Salazar, SER National Chief Executive Officer. “On behalf of the entire SER National family and SER Network of Affiliates across the country and Puerto Rico, I wish to send our deepest condolences to Pedro’s wife Tia, his children, and the extended Viera family. Our community has lost a tireless defender and a man who exemplified the belief that we can each serve the disadvantaged in need through selfless actions. Pedro’s greatness was his humility and his infinite faith in the goodness of others. May he now rest in peace and receive the reward of a life well-lived,” said Salazar.

Pedro formalized a record number of new corporate and private foundation partnerships, which led to a more robust Amigos de SER during his tenure as SER National President. He also increased the number of state and federal grants procured and implemented national initiatives, marketing, and fundraising campaigns. His leadership generated millions of dollars on behalf of the SER Network of Affiliates for their work in the areas of affordable housing, urban renewal, family education, and literacy, and job training/job bank services for talent recruitment.

“I knew Pedro for the last 32 years, and during those years, he never ceased to impress me with his work ethic and innovative ideas,” said Joe Campos, former SER National’s Vice-President of Corporate Relations. “He took SER National to another level in the areas of job training and corporate development. To put it lightly, you just had to be around him to know what kind of person Pedro was,” added Campos.

Pedro experienced success in a storied career that provided him opportunities to design, oversee and implement businesses, projects, and programs in the private, government, and non-profit sectors at both the local and national levels.A true visionary, Pedro highly valued business ventures that are focused, accountability-driven, solution-oriented, and legacy building. Some of his past jobs include positions at the Department of Education, Puerto Rico; SER-Jobs for Progress, Inc., Milwaukee; SER-Jobs for Progress National, Inc., Dallas; Pan American Financial, Inc., San Juan; International Construction Solutions Development, Inc., San Juan; Liberty Circle Energy, Inc., San Juan; Institucion Educativa NETS USA, Irving; National Society of Hispanic MBA, Irving; Latino Consulting Services, Inc., Lewisville; and most recently, Universal Coin International (UCoin ), Inc., Guayaquil, Ecuador.

“God gifted Pedro Viera with the talent of always coming up with innovative problem-solving ideas no matter what the industry was,” said Juan Constantino, former SER National’s Vice-President of Operations. “Anytime Pedro was in the room, we knew that out-of-the-box thinking and looking beyond the usual answers was the way to go, and he freely shared his talents to make the outcome better. That’s the sign of a successful leader,” added Constantino.

Whether in his professional or personal life, his motto was constantly to impact others’ lives positively. He pursued this belief with generosity, compassion, servant leadership, and commitment to solving problems. Those who knew Pedro shared that he welcomed and included people from all walks of life. Although he achieved great acclaim and success, Pedro never forgot his humble beginnings or lost sight of the core values of his upbringing. “No te preocupes, yo me encargo” was his typical response to anybody in need. Pedro was just as comfortable occupying a seat at a banquet table with wealthy clients as he was at home sharing a sandwich with the company driver or security guard. He was never too proud to sweep floors or stack chairs, completing whatever needed doing after an event.

He was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, March 30, 1953, to Pedro Luis Viera Correa and Ana Delia Marrero Villalobos. He received a BA in Economics/Statistics at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez, and a Master’s in Urban and Economic Planning from the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras. In addition, Pedro pursued post-graduate studies in Urban Education at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.

Pedro is preceded in death by his father, Pedro Luis Viera Correa. He leaves in God’s loving care his devoted wife of 27 years, Tia Viera; his previous wife, Olga Pallan; his two children, Michelle Viera Keleny (Eric Keleny) and Wesley Viera Lava; his mother, Ana Delia Marrero Villalobos; his brother, Luis Alberto Viera Marrero; his three grandchildren, Ohani Keleny, Ari Keleny, and Valentina Keleny; his aunt, Carmen Marrero Villalobos; his cousin, William Candelario (Maria Garcia); his cousin, Alma Yadira Navarro Viera; his two nephews and niece, Jorge Alberto Viera Aviles, Liza Yanice Viera Aviles, and Chris Alberto Viera de la Cruz; as well as other extended family members.

Pedro’s burial will be in Puerto Rico, his native, beloved home, La Isla del Encanto. Remember Pedro, not with sadness but for his warmth, charm, and ardent desire to make people feel accepted and included.

SER National: America’s Diverse Labor is the Strength of our Nation

SER National: America’s Diverse Labor is the Strength of our Nation


Nation’s Service-Employment-Redevelopment Network Says Labor Day Can Honor the Value and Worth of Every Worker


Irving, TX – Ignacio Salazar, President, and CEO of SER NATIONAL, today issued the following statement in observance of Labor Day 2021, Monday, September 6th:

“Labor Day is an opportunity for our country to celebrate the ever-enduring power of our country’s talented and diverse civilian labor force which reached 164.6-million in February 2020 before the pandemic began and has already surpassed 161-million as our economic recovery continues steadily. This resilience is a testament to each worker in every industry, trade, and profession and proves that labor in all its forms has historically fueled our greatest economic achievements.

As impressive is the productivity of the American worker. According to the latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the trend continues to show increases in the level of work being performed and the number of hours being worked during the past year. Also, labor output now is greater than it was in the three-month period before the pandemic. American workers adapt to confront and overcome challenges.

The history of Labor Day is rooted deeply in the belief that every worker’s contribution matters and is worthy of being recognized. Evidence of this is that the holiday started with local ordinances passed in America’s towns and cities in the mid-1880’s. Starting with Oregon, more than 28 states made it an official observance and by 1894, Congress made it a legal national holiday.

The most beautiful part of Labor Day is that this is the one holiday of the year when title does not determine who is praised for his or her work. From those who work in our fields and factories, to our first responders, healthcare workers, laborers in construction or professionals, executives, and CEO’s; every man, woman and yes, young workers too, can claim Labor Day is America saying thanks to them. Why not? After all, it takes millions of us daily to keep our country moving forward. So, to every worker, we say job well done!”

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About SER Jobs for Progress National, Inc. – “Cultivating America’s Greatest Resource: People”

The SER Network of Affiliates serves over 1,000,000 people annually. SER is located throughout the country, in 24 states and 200 locations. The SER Network provides a variety of comprehensive programs including housing, youth services, GED classes, English language acquisition, early childhood education, older Americans training, women entrepreneurship, Science-Technology-Engineering-Math (STEM), assistance for military Veterans, operations of workforce centers nationally, plus assisting and placing thousands of qualified men and women in unsubsidized employment.