My, how things have changed.
When Centro Hispano of Dane County first opened its doors on March 18, 1983, it served about 3,000 Latinos in Dane County. Today, 30 years later, the number of Latinos in Dane County is somewhere between 30,000-40,000.
Thirty years ago this week, a group of community leaders led by Ilda Thomas had a vision for an organization that would meet the needs of Madison's growing Latino community. With incredible passion, drive, and hard work that group founded Centro Hispano in March of 1983. From the strong foundation created in a small office on Fairchild Street, Centro Hispano has blossed into a major organization meeting the needs of thousands of families in Dane County every year. It’s hard to believe that it all started with a small $14,000 grant from United Way.
“I see a lot more opportunities ahead as we move forward and continue to grow. I think Centro is really poised to blossom and meet the many needs that are in the community and will be coming to the community,” says Kent Craig, executive director of Centro Hispano. “I think there’s a lot of hope around the potential for immigration reform that could allow us to provide programming around many important areas like career pathways and housing.
“We’re prepared to do those kind of things,” Craig continues. “We have 30 years of experience and I think the organization has really matured to the point where it can grow and change and adapt and overcome whatever obstacles there might be.”
Centro Hispano is acknowledging those 30 years of service with a year of celebration, reflection, and planning for the future. As part of this effort, Centro will be hosting a 30 Year Campaign Kickoff and Mixer at Centro Hispano on April 12 and will be embarking on a big fundraising campaign to help sustain Centro in the coming years. At the mixer, Centro will be announcing details of its exciting $300,000 campaign to help ensure Centro Hispano can thrive for another 30 years and beyond.
“Part of what we are raising around is investing in our operating reserves which helps stabilize any organization,” Craig says. “And we want to invest in this building which we own but we’ve never done a campaign to ask people to leave a legacy and to invest in this space. That’s what we’ll be doing this year — giving people an opportunity to put a name on a tile or to name a room after themselves or their family or their business.”
For 30 years, Centro Hispano of Dane Country has existed to empower Latinos to be full and active participants in the community and to promote and preserve knowledge of and pride in Hispanic and Latino culture and heritage. Centro has administered numerous programs and cultural events over the past three decades, always with the goals of fostering hope, responsibility, and encouragement to the Latino community.
“We have definitely grown in our 30 years and we’ve grown to focus on more youth programs,” Craig says. “We are in the schools providing services [from] elementary through high school. There’s a wider array. We have more staff involved.”
A huge step in the maturation of Centro was becoming the owner of an 18,000-square-foot facility at 810 West Badger Road in the heart of Madison's south side in 2006.
“That really changes what we can do at Centro,” Craig says. “We have ample space for community events and programs that work with groups. If you come here in an evening, we’ll have five or six things going on and different organizations providing services, as well. The building has changed the way that we can collaborate. Instead of Centro primarily needing to go out [into the community], a lot of organizations come in to Centro to provide services. We have a beautiful space where classes and workshops and forums can take place.”
Centro received a boost last year with the hiring of Judith Rosario as deputy director. As many Madisonians remember, Rosario previously served Centro Hispano and the Urban League as Director of Youth Programming between the years 2005 to 2010.
“Judith has been providing really solid leadership of our operations and programs since coming on board,” Craig says. “She brings a lot of expertise in program development and management that has strengthened our relationships with a lot of our key stakeholders in the community.”
As Centro has grown over the years, they have created many different collaborations and partnerships with other agencies and entities in the city.
“I think the direction that things are going right now is that any social impact organization is going to do a lot of work through collective impact,” Craig says. “Organizations have to be able to collaborate in ways where we can see issues in the community together and not work in silos. We need to work together to achieve outcomes. So many of our projects that we are working on now aren’t just one organization working — it’s three or four organizations working together. And it’s not just about our work … it’s about how we’re able to collaborate.”
Centro Hispano provides a range or programs and services that support Dane County’s Latino population. Throughout the years, the needs of the Latino population have changed, and today, Centro’s programs focus on youth, families, and the community. Some of the current programs include:
• The Juventud Program provides academic support, parent engagement, and leadership development to middle school-aged Latino youth and their families. Currently, Juventud programs operate in five Madison middle schools. With the help of volunteer tutors, hundreds of Latino youth receive the academic support needed to be prepared for high school.
• The ComVida program has been working to reduce delinquency and recidivism among Latino youth in Dane County.
• The Proyecto Líder is a leadership development program for high school and early college age Latino youth. The program allows youth to gain the skills to become the voices of their communities and helps them exercise those skills by working to address the issues that affect Latinos in Dane County.
Craig is really excited about the Caminos Career Pathways program — a collaboration between Madison College, the Latino Academy, and Omega School. “We’re training certified nursing assistants (CNA) and we’re looking to train more this upcoming year. We’re looking to bridging other career pathways, as well. We work with youth through high school and I feel like there is this gap between education and social services. We want to continue to help people get the educational training for careers that they will find fulfilling. It’s really difficult to find a career with a high school diploma right now ... some sort of post-secondary [education] is really important. We want to focus on not stopping with our high school program and have lots of supports for people looking for career certifications.”
Craig is also excited about the Escalera program, an NCLR model that Centro has adopted. “It’s been a shift from our old Aspira model that we had,” he says. “It’s working with the same age group in the schools, but we’re more focused on college prep and career aspiration and helping students finish high school and bridging that gap from high school to post-secondary.”
Recently, Centro has been collaborating with the United Way’s Schools of Hope in an effort to reduce the gap in academic achievement. “Schools of Hope became part of Centro in 2011 and it really expanded our impact into the elementary schools,” Craig says. “It is vital in improving literacy at the elementary level.”
As Centro does more and more collaboration and continues to grow innovative programming, fundraising will always be a challenge.
“The past few years have been tough for non-profits all around the country on meeting fund-raising goals. We’ve been fortunate to have strong support from our local funders like the United Way and the City, County, and School District,” Craig says. “We’ve been able to secure some new sources through the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) and some other things. Still, as we try to grow and meet the needs of the community, we need to find new ways to connect people who want to support us — especially individuals in the community. That’s a very important source of revenue for any non-profit and we need to do a better job of connecting the individuals in the community who support our mission and want to be involved with what we’re doing.”
Some of that involves being better self-promoters. “I think we have improved in that aspect,” Craig says. “I think we have raised the visibility of our work over the past few years. We need to continue to do that.”
Centro’s visibility is probably at its highest once a year when everything great that Centro does is highlighted at an elaborate gala — the Centro Hispano annual banquet. The event is a chance to honor young Latino scholars with scholarships and to honor community members for their outstanding contributions. It is also their biggest fundraiser and one of their high-profile events.
“The banquet keeps growing every year — this will be the 24th annual — and it’s something that people really look forward to,” Craig says. “It’s an event that we love and the community loves, too.”
As the evolution of Centro continues in order to meet the need of an ever-increasing Dane County Latino population, Craig likes where the organization is headed. While Centro has grown and evolved tremendously in three decades, its mission of empowering Latinos through quality social, educational, and cultural programs has always remained the same.
“I would like Centro to continue on the path that it’s on. We want to continue to develop as an organization and to increase its capacity to meet needs in the community and to adapt to those needs,” Craig says. “If we can get this space going to its full potential, it will open up a lot of programming activities for the community to be engaged in the organization.
“I really do like all of the people here that I get to work with every day and that includes the staff, the volunteers, the community, the people participating in our programs, and the board [of directors],” Craig adds. “I’m surrounded by wonderful people and that is really gratifying. The weight and the importance of the mission [of Centro] give me a sense of purpose in what I’m doing. It makes coming to work every day fun.”
Centro will be hosting a 30 Year Campaign Kickoff and Mixer at Centro Hispano on April 12. For more information, call (608) 255-3018 or visit www.micentro.org.