CARRBORO Twice a week, Michael Cortes tackles his homework with support from tutors at El Centro Hispano.
Since the center moved its Orange County office to downtown in Carrboro this year, the seventh-grader and his family only have to travel about a mile from their apartment for the extra help.
“It’s a lot closer,” said Michael, who was working on a geometry assignment during a recent tutoring session.
In light-filled, colorfully painted rooms, El Centro Hispano’s new home at 201 W. Weaver St. offers 14 types of services, including translation and interpretation, legal clinics, job searching, health education, English as Second Language, and parenting and tutoring sessions. The new office is located more conveniently near other businesses and along bus routes than its old location in Carrboro Plaza, on the outskirts of town.
The center has also doubled its hours of operation; the Carrboro office is now open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday. At the plaza, the center operated from 2 to 6 p.m. the same days.
“To open up that schedule allows more people to actually visit,” office coordinator Natalia Lenis said. “(Visitors) have said that it feels more cozy, more like a community. And the other thing is that it is more visible, and it’s closer for everyone.”
Lenis estimated the center is already serving at least twice as many community members as before the move. For example, legal clinics are scheduled by appointment, and at the former office, only one or two people would sign up most weeks.
“Right now I have the whole month of February and the beginning of March signed up with five to six people for each clinic,” she said.
‘A welcoming place’
Begun in a church basement in Durham in 1992, El Centro Hispano now serves approximately 10,000 people each year and operates with a staff of 19 and an annual budget of $900,000, according to President and CEO Pilar Rocha-Goldberg. It relies on support from private foundations, local and state government funds, donations, and fundraising.
El Centro Hispano seeks to strengthen the Hispanic/Latino community. Between 2000 and 2010, Orange County’s Latino population more than doubled – from 5,273 to 11,017, now 8.2 percent of Orange County’s residents, according to the U.S. Census.
The Orange County branch opened in 2010 after El Centro Latino in Carrboro closed, due to lack of funding.
“(El Centro Latino) approached us to see if we were willing to open a branch in this area, to not leave the community left hanging,” Lenis said.
The center’s offerings complement existing programs that support the Latino population, according to board secretary Ethan Beattie, an immigration attorney at Beattie Law Firm, PLLC. The legal clinics Beattie provides through El Centro address a wide variety of issues: tax preparation, family law, immigration, domestic violence and more.
“(The Carrboro office) is a welcoming place that has a multitude of services. ... It’s an all-in-one package of resources for all people of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area and greater Orange County,” he said. “It's a safe place to get resources. It's like a home away from home."
Lenis said the center also supports community members growing as leaders. Through El Cento's “Las Damas de Rosa” (The Ladies in Pink) program, for example, women take on leadership roles to educate their community about breast cancer.
Inside the classroom
In El Centro’s evening tutoring sessions, about 35 students, from kindergarten through high school, get help with homework. El Centro matches students with high school and university volunteers, often one-on-one. The tutors are bilingual, so students can ask for help in either English or Spanish.
The tutoring sessions have also surged in popularity with the new location. At a recent session, students and tutors filled three classrooms.
Erika Chavez drops off her children Madison, 4, and Carlos, 10, twice a week for tutoring. A social worker at Carrboro Elementary School told her about the tutoring sessions.
“My son was getting behind in classes. He needed the help,” said Chavez, speaking in Spanish. “He has improved a lot.”
Lizette Cortes, a fourth-grader at Carrboro Elementary, shared a similar experience.
“Before I entered tutoring originally, I didn’t get a lot of stuff, but now I get a lot of stuff.”
In the mornings, the classrooms fill with young children, up to 5 years old, and their parents, who gather for English as a Second Language and parenting support. Through a partnership with the Orange County Literacy Council, El Centro offers a comprehensive program where children and parents alike improve their English and basic literacy skills.
“The parents are going to help the children to reinforce what they are seeing,” said Francisca Fragoso, education specialist for El Centro Hispano, speaking in Spanish.
She explained that the classes accustom the children to basic social practices like sharing and following a routine. Meanwhile, in the parenting support group, parents explore topics such as positive discipline and recognizing depression in youth and adults.
Lenis predicts the new location will continue to boost the center’s influence.
“My goal is to make (the programs) stronger, increase the number of students and maybe increase the number of classes we can offer to people,” she said.
To learn more about El Centro Hispano’s offerings, visit http://www.elcentronc.orgor contact 919-945-0132.