Affiliate Spotlight: Centro Hispano, a Hub for Latinos in Central Pennsylvania


Central Pennsylvania is a hotbed of growth for the state’s Latino population. Driving along the Route 222 corridor, you’ll run into the towns of Bethlehem, Allentown, Reading, Lancaster, and York. More Latinos live in these and other small towns along this stretch of highway than in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

The city of Reading, about an hour northwest of Philadelphia, is also the home of our 2015 Northeast Affiliate of the Year, and the subject of this month’s Affiliate Spotlight, Centro Hispano, an organization that has been serving Central Pennsylvania’s Latino community for 50 years.

The mission of Centro Hispano is to “support the acculturation process of the Latino community,” according to Executive Director Mike Toledo. The organization does this in a variety of ways, chiefly via its “information and referral” program. This function of Centro Hispano is largely the genesis of the group, says Toledo. To understand this, however, it’s important to know some of Reading’s history.

During World War II, as American men were sent abroad to fight, the agriculture industry and farmers found themselves sorely in need of workers while so many men were away at war. Their solution to this problem was to charter planes to and from Puerto Rico to bring in laborers who could do the seasonal work. After many years of this, many Puerto Ricans realized that Reading could be a good place to live and to raise a family.

For those who chose to settle, and who were not English-dominant, the challenges became about access. Questions about who would rent to them, what doctors they could see, or which churches they could worship in were both practical and important; the Puerto Ricans who could speak English well realized that getting this information to others was paramount. This led to the establishment of Centro Hispano, and 50 years later, information and referrals are still core services. Now the organization provides educational programming, senior services, voter education, and voter advocacy.

This tireless dedication to its community has positioned Centro Hispano as indispensable. If you want to reach Latinos in Central Pennsylvania, Centro Hispano is the way to do it. The Hyundai Corporation certainly knows this and recently selected Centro Hispano to partner with them in running a winter coat drive.

About 900 coats were donated to families in need.

About 900 coats were donated to families in need.

“They could have chosen any organization in the country,” said Toledo. “To know they wanted to partner with us, we felt very blessed.”

A chief concern was making sure the coat drive benefited those most in need. Centro Hispano worked with the school district (the state’s sixth largest, with an 80% Latino student population) to identify families, as well as with groups like the Salvation Army and women’s shelters. In total, Toledo and his team, generously supported by Hyundai, were able to distribute a whopping 900 coats.

“It was a great way to bring the community together, to see them working for good,” said Toledo. “We were able to reach a diverse group of people who were in need.”

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For all of the tremendous work that Centro Hispano has done, Toledo credits his group’s membership in the NCLR Affiliate Network as a “game changer” in its history.

“Showing that you have a relationship with one of the most respected national organizations, it helps to raise our level of awareness. Not just at the local level, but at the state level,” said Toledo.

The Affiliate Network gives Centro Hispano credibility, says Toledo, and it has enabled the community-based organization to meet with elected officials about its community’s needs. And, perhaps more importantly, membership in the Affiliate Network has allowed Centro Hispano to expand its programming. For example, for the second year in a row, the group has participated in our Escalera education program, which Toledo says has opened up many opportunities and allowed his group to raise the level of support provided to the community.

“Because of this core guidance and direction, the impact of what we provide has taken what we do here to the next level,” said Toledo. “We’re happy to know we can count on NCLR for the support of the work we’re doing in the community.”

We certainly look forward to supporting Centro Hispano in its next 50 years.

NCLR Affiliates Make the Case for Education Reform in Washington

By Eunice Ahenkorah, Education Policy Fellow, NCLR Policy Analysis Center

Last week Washington was buzzing with excitement as more than 200 advocates, including nearly 60 youth participants, from NCLR Affiliates across the country converged on the nation’s capital.  In all, groups from 28 states participated in the 2014 NCLR National Latino Advocacy Days.  On the first day, three workshops and five briefings were organized to teach participants how to advocate effectively when meeting with elected officials and their staff.  Then, on the second day, participants held more than 100 meetings with members of Congress and their staff.

One of the most important issues at this year’s event was education, as evidenced by the nearly 70 people who joined the education workshop on March 5 to discuss principles of equity, access, and opportunity.  Some of these participants shared with us why they are passionate about education:

Kevin Sanchez at the U.S. Capitol

“We all have goals and aspirations in life. The key to getting the things you want in life is education.  I believe that there needs to be some kind of reform in our current education system.  No system or bill was ever perfect, but we need to have some type of reform to pass on to the next generation to come.” –Kevin Sanchez, age 18, first-time youth participant from Raleigh, NC

Jennifer Reyes and others from the Latin American Coalition.

“I am passionate about education because I want to succeed in life….I want to go to college and have an amazing life with whoever I want.” –Jennifer Reyes, youth participant

Karen Gomez

Karen Gomez

“I think we as a country have to do a better job of supporting parents and kids, especially Latinos.  We know that one out of every five children in the U.S. is a Latino, so we need to seriously start investing money in them because they are going to be the future of the country.” –Karen Gomez, Executive Director of Centro Hispano Comunitario de Nebraska and mother of two

“Education starts very early, at birth. Our [Latino] kids are already falling behind, when they start school.  Because of this we cannot further our education as a community in order to help others.” –Zhania Martinez, volunteer at Action Institute, NC, a former NCLR Emerging Latino Communities (ELC) Initiative grantee

NCLR’s National Latino Advocacy Days are proof that Latinos are a powerful force in this country.  The diversity of age and geographic location among participants reflects the commitment, strength, persistence, and resilience of our community.  They came to tell their stories, show how congressional inaction was affecting their lives, and give Latino issues the attention they deserve.  If members of Congress are wise, they will have listened closely to the hundreds of advocates who visited them last week.  Doing otherwise could result in a lost seat in Congress come Election Day.

Scenes from the Sequester: Adult Decisions Hurting Our Youth

Milagro Kids

In the latest installment of our semi-regular video series, we meet Aldira Aldape and Mike Toledo. Both work at nonprofit community-based organizations in NCLR’s Affiliate network.  Aldira and Mike both have deep concerns about the effects of the sequester—mandatory across-the-board cuts to the federal budget—will have on one of our most successful early education programs, Head Start.

We all know that Latino children will make up the bulk of our future workforce. That’s why investments in our youth are so important. With the sequester in effect, however, those investments are harder to make. The policies of austerity in place today jeopardize the future prosperity of America.

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