SER National Affiliate: Casa San Jose

SER National Affiliate: Casa San Jose

In Pittsburgh, a city steeped in the history of America’s industrial boom and change, a new collective of voices is being heard. The sound is different, reflecting a tapestry of fresh cultural experiences, and its source is Casa San Jose. There, Latino families and individuals are coming together and creating an opportunity to infuse Pittsburg with a new vitality for the future.

Established in 2013 by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Baden, Casa San Jose was born out of a deep-seated commitment to uplift and empower the region’s burgeoning Latino population. The richly faceted social services agency embodies the resilience and empowerment that define the organization’s mission.

Monica Ruiz, Executive Director of Casa San Jose in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, readily acknowledges the challenges and growth of the Latino community. She states, “I think that for us here in Pittsburgh, PA, Latinos are less than 2% of the population, but we have grown more than 80% in the last ten years. Before, Latinos came for work and then left to return to their homes, returning seasonally. But then, they began to settle here and stayed to raise their families.”

As the city witnessed an influx of newcomers, Casa San Jose emerged as a lifeline, filling in the gaps for services that the community desperately needed but were unavailable. Monica’s vision extended beyond immediate aid; she aimed to create bridges within institutions and processes that have seen little change in decades.

Monica laments, recounting the countless instances where community members were stranded because of a lack of linguistic support in crucial institutions. “Language access remains a significant barrier,” Ruiz states. “Language access must be our greatest barrier at present. You go into a city or county office, and they have nothing in Spanish for residents. Even healthcare services lack language and cultural accessibility. For example, we only have two Spanish-speaking pediatricians,” she says.

The organization’s staff reflects the community they serve. Ruiz notes, “We have a staff of 27, and out of these individuals, maybe six or seven were born here in the United States. Everyone else is from somewhere else or has received services from us. Their lived experience is invaluable as they now help others. We have a great mix of people,” Monica beams, highlighting their shared experiences as immigrants and their dedication to the cause.

“Casa San Jose fills gaps in services for the community,” Ruiz emphasizes. “However, we want people to acquire the skills and knowledge to learn how to navigate the services themselves in this city. This is a very complex process, but we’re building resiliency within folks as they experience success,” she adds.

Casa San Jose is a resource hub for Latino immigrants seeking assistance and guidance from weekly clinics and food pantries to Know Your Rights sessions and summer camps. Its comprehensive programs encompass social services, emergency aid, community advocacy, English language classes, mental health support, housing assistance, and specialized programs for children with autism.

As importantly, Casa San Jose champions amplifying inclusion at every level within the larger community, ensuring that the voices of those they serve are heard and elevated. “Representation is essential,” emphasizes Monica. Particularly important is pushing for inclusivity in decision-making processes in programs and services that impact the Latino population. Ruiz explains, “Representation means having people with a voice and viewpoint authentic to the issue or need we are addressing in our city.“

One central area of focus of Casa San Jose is working with local youths through several of the organization’s programs: Jóvenes Con Propósito fosters a vibrant community of Latino youth, championing immigrant rights and igniting social change. With a firm belief in the current leadership of today’s youth, the program meets weekly during the academic year, nurturing empowerment and activism.

Puentes Hacia el Futuro, tailored for ages 6-14, cultivates cultural identity and leadership skills through trust-building activities, discussions, and educational pursuits, preparing youth for a dynamic future blending Latino and American cultures.

Campamento Sonrisa offers an enriching summer experience for youths aged 7-14, blending education, outdoor adventures, and sports. Participants enjoy nutritious meals throughout the structured camp, including breakfast, lunch, and snacks. The elementary session runs from June to July, while the middle school session spans from mid-July to August, providing an inclusive opportunity for all applicants at no cost.

Casa San Jose serves multi-generational families in tangible, practical ways every day. For its stakeholders, it is both about the here and now and the future of the Latino comunidad. “We are learning from other larger cities with decades of experience working within significantly bigger Latino populations,” says Ruiz. “At the same time, I hope that we can offer smaller communities near and around us an example of how to build resilience and help our people not just survive but thrive for years to come,” she adds.

Leading with Power in Our Nation’s Capital

Leading with Power in Our Nation’s Capital

Mission of Love Opens the Way Through Service

Every successful organization has a driving force behind it. At Mission of Love Charities located in Capitol Heights, Maryland, just minutes from the nation’s center of political power, that catalyst is Deborah “Deb” Martinez. Yet, this seasoned community advocate known by a who’s who of Washington leaders quickly credits her parents when asked about the source of her positivity and energy. She adds that they instilled in her pride in her identity, a fearlessness in life, and the constant determination to make every moment count.

“Each of us has something good to contribute, and I believe that when we find that purpose in our lives, we have the duty and the joy to share it with the people we can help through our actions, our words, and our support,” says Martinez. “In my case, my mother worked hard and sacrificed for her children so that we could go to college. She held several government jobs so we could attend Howard University tuition-free. She told us if you want to go somewhere else, you pay for it, but I am who I am today, in part, because I attended Howard and appreciate what my mother did for us.”
That upbringing has shaped Martinez’s vision for the work she does leading Mission of Love Charities. The organization offers various services and delivers vital everyday social assistance to the community throughout the immediate region. From rent and utility assistance to job training and workforce development, Martinez says the role of the Mission of Love Charities is to help people in practical ways that recognize the challenges they are facing.

“During the pandemic, our students cannot always access the internet, which impacts them disproportionately,” says Martinez. “So, if helping a family with their internet service is needed, we try to be there to ensure that the children can stay connected to their educational lifeline. It is that real and immediate. Or, if I meet a young person who needs a job sooner rather than later, I encourage them to consider a trade or a program like Certified Nursing Assistant because CNAs are in high demand due to COVID. We don’t believe every person has to incur massive college debt to become employable in a good-paying job and be successful. However, I also encourage people to stay curious, learn everything they can every day, and read a book as often as possible. Whether it is the Bible or some other book that interests you like Before the Mayflower, the point is to stay open to improving yourself as a person.”

That can-do spirit of looking for genuine, practical, and immediate solutions is what Martinez teaches her staff. The Mission of Love Charities team meets weekly, and Martinez says people make the gatherings uplifting and more successful because of the respect and interpersonal relations. “This is not home; we are a place of business, and it is important to keep our work separate from our personal lives. Still, our goal is to make each other feel appreciated, listened to, and that we are all working towards making our jobs better and more effective for the people who rely on us.”
Mission of Love Charities stays in constant communication with state, county, and local leaders who seek Martinez’s and her team’s input on local issues impacting the increasingly diverse community. Whether working-class Latino, Black, Caucasian, or more recently, Afghani and Central American immigrants in need, the problems they need help with require that the agency partner with many different individuals and organizations. The starting point may be learning English, but their needs grow exponentially, and no one organization has all the solutions.

“Without partnering, the civil rights movement would not have happened,” reminds Martinez. “We would not be here as an organization without partnering, and after the last four years, we are better today because we are partnering now, so I think that looking back and blaming the past administration and grieving all that is a waste of time. We are blessed to be here now and need to focus on where to go from here. This fact becomes abundantly clear when you travel to see what conditions are like in other countries. Also, when people complain to me about their situation, I tell them change starts with education, and if we do not do that for ourselves, we have no one else to blame. Also, we need to become informed and stay engaged in our civic duty to vote in the mid-terms, which are just as important as elections during presidential election years. So too, in working with our school systems, even if we don’t like everything they are doing, we must stay involved in what is happening to our children in the public schools.”
Martinez says Mission of Love Charities will soon be relocating into a newer facility. Seven will be dedicated to education training, the lifeline for participants seeking to make a significant change in their lives. She adds that among her education goals is to continue mentoring women to strive for leadership roles and says the non-profit sector has served to open many doors for women to succeed. “This is an exciting time in my life because I am ready and eager to pass on the knowledge and what I have learned over the years to the next generation woman who wants to lead a community-based organization. The notion of giving back to our community is something that my mother instilled in me, and when I am ready to step away, what will give me the peace of mind needed will be knowing that I did it the right way, preparing a successor who can step in,” she said.

Numerous awards affirm that Mission of Love Charities is getting the job done and doing it right. The organization has been recognized as one of the Essence Essential Heroes. Also, the agency was selected among the nation’s Top 100 by Charity Navigator. Plus, its work was profiled by the ABC7 Helping Hands series and received the Community Crisis Service’s Hero Award. Even CNN featured Missions of Love Charities during nationwide coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact. Martinez concludes by saying that she owes her success and Mission of Love Charities to her board of directors and its chairperson. They support and endorse the daily decisions she has to make in running the organization. “They agree with me nine times out of ten and work hard to help find the money for us to carry out our programs. This is all I could ask for, and without them, we would not be where we are today. I accept this recognition from SER National on behalf of all the men and women who work tirelessly every day to keep doing the
work of Mission of Love Charities. As the name says, what we do for others is not for gain for ourselves but an expression of our love for others,” she adds.

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.

A Legacy of Uplifting Growing Communities: LaAmistad Is Raising Families in Greater Atlanta

A Legacy of Uplifting Growing Communities: LaAmistad Is Raising Families in Greater Atlanta

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.