by Bob Hart
Special to The Leaven
TOPEKA — Long the first point of contact for Spanish- speaking families in need, El Centro here has expanded its services with an important approval from the U.S. Justice Department. After three years of planning and preparation, the organization’s executive director Lalo Munoz has been granted the authority to function as an attorney in matters of immigration, through the department’s Recognition and Accreditation Program.
“As Catholics, we are called to welcome the stranger with love and compassion,” Munoz said. “Immigrant families are not much different than we are. They want to provide for their families, just as we do.”
Working with local attorneys, who provide their collaboration without charge, Munoz will now be able to provide legal services across an array of immigrant family concerns.
“One of our biggest issues right now is preparing families for the worst, while hoping for the best,” he explained. “They need to be prepared in case of emergency. For example, who will care for their children if they must leave the country?”
Growth and trust
El Centro was founded in 1972 by Father Ramon Gaitan, OAR, then pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Topeka, to serve the local Spanish-speaking population. When Father Ramon was transferred to a parish in Kansas City, Kansas, in 1976, he founded a second branch of the organization with the same name.
El Centro of Topeka has grown to the point where, last year alone, it provided 1,400 interpretations, 300 document translations and 200 free medical screenings. The new immigration services will further increase its impact on the local community, Munoz said.
“We have built trust in the community over a period of more than four decades,” he said. “We help individuals and families in very vulnerable situations at critical, sensitive times. These added services will allow us to do so more effectively.”
The new Immigration Assistance Clinic adds a third area of service to El Centro’s scope. The organization, which receives funding from the annual Archbishop’s Call to Share campaign, will continue to provide its Community Resource Program, which includes interpretation and translation services, along with community referrals in matters of housing, food assistance and emergency situations; and its Mobile Health Clinic, providing basic, preventative screenings.
In addition to its support from Call to Share, El Centro receives funding from Blue Cross Blue Shield, the Entrepreneurial and Minority Business Development Council, Kansas Health Foundation and Kansas Leadership Center, among others.
In 2014, El Centro joined with MANA de Topeka and Topeka LULAC Council 11017 to create the Latino Leadership Collaborative, a community-based program designed to dramatically increase leadership capacity in the Latino community.
A friendly face
Griselda Martinez, administrative assistant for El Centro of Topeka, is also active in efforts to increase voter registration among the Spanish-speaking population.
“With the people who are able to vote, we help them to become citizens so they can,” she said.
Martinez said she has been acting as an interpreter since childhood, helping her Spanish-speaking parents understand English documents and messages from teachers, once she learned the language herself. She recalls being “treated badly” when first attending school, since she only spoke Spanish.
“It wasn’t nice,” she said. “I was bullied and chased. I had gum put in my hair.”
With those painful memories in mind, she strives to be a friendly and welcoming face to El Centro clients, particularly immigrants, who may be apprehensive about first reaching out for help.
“We’re here to serve everybody,” she said. “I want people to know that they don’t need to be afraid to ask us anything. If we can’t help, we’ll find them someone who can.”
Investing in the community
Munoz, a Topeka native who has three young children with his wife Veronica, said the assistance El Centro provides to immigrants isn’t just a matter of compassion. It’s also good for the long-term health of the community as a whole.
“Having a community that is inclusive is important, especially as you begin to look at changing demographics,” he said. “Seventy-five of the 105 counties in Kansas have decreasing populations, and we know that growth in the Catholic Church is in large part due to immigrants. How do we sustain our communities and be prosperous, with a strong and growing future? One of the best ways is to be welcoming.”