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Financial troubles hurt the organization, as did the high turnover in its leadership.

El Centro Latino closes, leaving gap in services for immigrants 

Out of money, out of time

click to enlarge El Centro Latino closed Nov. 25. Orange County Latinos must travel to Durham or Chatham County for many services. - PHOTO BY JOE SCHWARTZ
  • Photo by Joe Schwartz
  • El Centro Latino closed Nov. 25. Orange County Latinos must travel to Durham or Chatham County for many services.

Francisco Javier doesn't speak or read English well enough to help his 9-year-old daughter, Lidia, with her homework. So twice a week, Lidia, a student at McDougle Elementary School in Carrboro, traveled, her backpack in tow, to El Centro Latino for tutoring as part of an after-school program for fourth and fifth graders. Now her father doesn't know how she'll get the help she needs.

El Centro Latino, a decade-old nonprofit serving Orange County's growing Hispanic population—the number in Carrboro alone increased 936 percent from 1990 to 2000, according to the town's Web site—closed permanently the day before Thanksgiving. Francisco found out two days earlier when he came to pick up Lidia from tutoring.

"I felt a lot of sadness because the center is a place where people are being helped a lot," he says in Spanish, through a translator. "Also because my daughter will not receive any assistance with her schoolwork."

El Centro's lease in the Douglas Building on Main Street in Carrboro expires this month. No more tutoring. No document translation service. No job-search program or place for Spanish speakers to ease their adjustment to American culture.

"The basic kind of immigrant service in terms of information referral—how things work, read me this letter, help me fill out this form for Medicaid—there aren't any agencies doing that kind of work. That's why centers like El Centro Latino get started," says Ilana Dubester, El Centro Latino's interim executive director. "That's the biggest loss for Latinos in Orange ... is that place that they can go to that they can trust for accurate information and nobody is going to rip them off."

Francisco moved to Carrboro two years ago to escape the violence in Juarez, Mexico, where drug-related killings are rampant. He heard about El Centro Latino from other Spanish-speaking immigrants and came to depend on the center for help deciphering hospital bills when his wife fell ill and for directions to the Mexican consulate when his daughter had passport problems. A dozen people visited El Centro daily, Dubester says, totaling more than 1,850 clients per year.

But financial troubles hurt the organization, as did the high turnover in its leadership—eight executive directors in 10 years.

"I think that the amount of transitions we had to go through one after another is something we struggled with, to be honest," Board Vice President Josmell Perez says. "We're a small nonprofit. We don't have the budget to offer a huge salary and the hours and commitment it takes to run a small nonprofit is hard."

In addition to founding the Chatham County nonprofit Hispanic Liaison in 1995, which she led for a dozen years, Dubester worked with Hispanics in Philanthropy, where she gave $3.5 million in grants to 47 Latino nonprofits in three years, including one to El Centro Latino. The board of directors turned to her for help in April and hired her on an interim basis. She was charged with restructuring the office during a six-month renewable appointment.

"I think Ilana did a great job of coming in and trying to sort through and get a little more organized," Perez says. "It's unfortunate this fell under her time here."

The group struggled to secure grants and raise funds and without a reserve fund, it ran out of money. Two full-time people lost their jobs.Dubester, who worked 30 hours a week, says the rest of the work was done by volunteers and contractors.

According to tax returns for the group, gifts, grants and contributions peaked in 2003 at $249,000. They bottomed out two years later at $171,000 but had rebounded to $190,000 by 2008. The tax returns for fiscal year 2008-09 were not available at press time; Dubester says they will be filed in a few weeks.

Last April, the board hired Dubester for a six-month contract; she repeatedly declined to disclose her compensation to the Indy but in 2006-07, then-Executive Director Ben Balderas earned $36,000.

Other nonprofit agencies in Durham and Chatham counties may be able to absorb some, but not all, of the additional demand for services that El Centro Latino had provided.

"They're not rich," says Dubester. "They can't really take responsibility for Orange County without Orange County also supporting them. I feel sorry because neither of them have the resources right now to add a whole new population to their roster."

Colleen Blue, program director at El Centro Hispano in Durham, says her organization could provide a resource referral office and youth support programs.

"We're going to try our best to be available to help people from Orange County as much as we can with the resources that we have," she says. "It'll be a little more work for us, but I think we can do it."

A few programs that El Centro hosted will continue in different locations. The English classes taught by instructors from Durham Technical Community College will move to the Skills Development Center on Franklin Street. A women's wellness program led by UNC School of Nursing personnel already had relocated after it outgrew El Centro's 1,800-square-foot office, which includes a classroom, day care and computer lab.

"The job employment assistance program is going to be the toughest to replace, I don't know where to send people right now. I don't know if there is a place to send them," Dubester says. "Durham (El Centro Hispano) used to send their clients to us. Neither of them has the resources to start the program right now."

But El Centro Latino board members hope to salvage the nonprofit and plan to hold a public meeting in January.

"Clearly we won't be the same because we're having to shut our doors, but we're looking to start a new phase in the life of El Centro Latino," board member Paula Gildner says.

Dubester says it's important that everyone from "county commissioners to Abbey Court residents" attend the meeting.

Sammy Slade, who was recently sworn in as a member of the Carrboro Board of Aldermen, already has called the center to see if he can help. "Of course, Carrboro like everything else is without any funds," Slade says. "We have to be creative in finding a solution and find out what services are expected from the Latino community and how the town may be able to supplement them."

Francisco says he hopes to be there, too. He says if he'd known sooner he would have started a fundraising campaign himself. Others have told Dubester the same, saying they would throw a fiesta or sell tamales.

"They were feeling like, 'Now that we lost El Centro we are heartbroken, and we want to do something about it,'" she says. "It's sad that it has to be this way, but it's also a fabulous opportunity for community buy-in, for new leadership to emerge, really for new blood to come in and say, 'Hey I want to make this work. We're going to start over and do things differently.'"

  • Financial troubles hurt the organization, as did the high turnover in its leadership.

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