Since 1978, as the Latino population has grown, the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan has helped families engage in their communities, while also providing support services and training.
“We are a large population, we are a fast-growing population, but yet and still in many circles the Hispanic community is still yet to be recognized for the growth they represent,” said Roberto Torres, executive director of the Hispanic Center. “A lot of programs that reach out to Latinos are just a drop in the bucket in terms of solving the issues of our community.”
Kent County’s Latino population has increased 200 percent since 2000 to about 61,000 people, according to the 2014 U.S. Census. In Grand Rapids, the census recorded similar growth, with the Latino population increasing about 215 percent to 30,037 people.
There are a variety of issues affecting Latino residents in Grand Rapids, but Torres said barriers are commonly present in three areas: education, employment and language.
Torres indicated that only 20 percent of Latino students in Grand Rapids are proficient in third-grade reading. Part of the problem, he said, is that many Latino children don’t have access to quality early education programs.
“A lot of children that come into our educational system, even at preschool, are not ready,” Torres said.
The Hispanic Center’s preschool program, La Escuelita, offers free bilingual education to students, many of whom come from first generation families where Spanish is their primary language. Students exit the program knowing 95 percent of the academic skills that are necessary to be deemed kindergarten-ready.
The center also is tackling the issue of education through its Supporting Our Leaders (SOL) program for students, ages 14-24. The program offers academic services, internships, financial training and other support services.
The program “makes the pathway to a professional career a reality,” said Torres, noting that 95 percent of participants graduate from high school. “It’s a way of allowing Latinos to look at the possibilities of having a career other than they’ve been accustomed to in their own communities or neighborhoods.”
According to the 2014 U.S. Census, 15.3 percent of Latinos in Kent County live in poverty. The Hispanic Center is working to lift families out of poverty by helping them to obtain adequate job skills and training.
In partnership with Grand Rapids Community College, the Hispanic Center is providing residents access to the college’s Machinist/Computer Numerical Control Technician program, an 18-week course offering students skills in mathematics, precision measuring, and computer operations. The program recently graduated 13 of the center’s clients.
“We’re giving individuals the tools they need to get into a career and then we’re engaging them into the mainframe of the community,” Torres said.
Community engagement is another focus of the center. With the local Latino population’s rise in numbers, Torres said it’s important for residents to become engaged in their community. The Hispanic Center provides parent training programs to teach parents how to actively participate in school board and civic meetings.
“People need to be able to advocate for themselves,” Torres said. “It’s important that we give Latino families the skillset and support to be able to become involved in their children’s education by getting involved in parent support groups or school meetings, attending their children’s event at school. It’s also important that they attend civic meetings where issues of the neighborhoods are being addressed.”
Torres said the organization provides translation services for the City of Grand Rapids, Grand Rapids Police Department and local businesses to eliminate language barriers between these institutions and residents.
“Since many adults speak Spanish as their main language at home, you have the challenge of communication and engaging the families in every day institutions in a way that can be communicated effectively,” Torres said. “Using language and culture as a way to engage the residents is an appropriate way to go and we see results.”
Hispanic Center staff also provides immigration support services. The center’s mission is to guide their clients through the visa application process, while also helping others realize that everyone deserves an opportunity to thrive, regardless of their citizenship status.
“It’s about safety and making sure that this community is a welcoming community to all immigrants,” Torres said. “What the Hispanic Center does is provide that confidence and that service, and in many cases, at no cost to the applicant.”
The Hispanic Center has been a lifeline for Grand Rapids resident and breast cancer survivor Marisol Orduna. Orduna said the center’s domestic violence program Project H.O.P.E. (Healing, Overcoming, Protecting, and Empowering) helped her to break free from a physically abusive marriage while battling breast cancer. Orduna took English-speaking classes and received civil legal assistance, survivor advocacy services and transportation as a member of Project H.O.P.E.
“I knew I had to get out of this relationship when I saw the help the Hispanic Center offers,” said Orduna, referring to her marriage. “This support group helps me cope with all my problems, and I also can express my feelings. Now, I do not fear.”
It’s this kind of empowerment that the center is hoping to bring to the Latino population in West Michigan.
“There are barriers in our community, but they can also represent opportunities if we give the right training, give the right academic support, and if we do appropriate parent education,” Torres said.