This week, the president and CEO of El Centro takes us inside her ministry in Kansas City, Kansas. Meet: Irene Caudillo.
Q. What is your title and where do you minister?
A. I am president and CEO of El Centro, a ministry founded through a grant from the archdiocese in 1976. Our mission is to strengthen communities and improve the lives of others, through educational, social and economic opportunities.
Q. Please describe what you do.
A. I am the day-to-day leader of the organization, responsible for raising dollars, marketing, strategic operations, and being the face and voice for the organization. I report to a governing body of community members known as our board of directors.
El Centro’s programs and services are family-centered and focused with a common thread of education, information and integration. We define integration as embracing our families’ culture and language. El Centro is uniquely prepared with special expertise to provide appropriate services that meet these cultural and language needs. We provide the following programs: dual-language preschool, health education and navigation, economic empowerment and policy/advocacy services.
Q. How would you describe how that fits into the larger mission of the Catholic Church?
A. Catholics are taught to live our faith through the social teachings. Catholic social teaching recognizes those who are in need are the most vulnerable. Those individuals and families who enter our doors only ask for human dignity and respect. El Centro fits into the larger mission of the Catholic Church by moving beyond welcoming the stranger, and building a common good through stewardship, trust and belonging with our community.
Q. Is this what you set out to do in life?
A. My parents wanted a doctor, lawyer or “big” money-making career for their children. They wanted us to have more than they had. They also taught us to be servant leaders. They changed their view of careers after several of my siblings became social workers, educators, lawyers and nurses. I convinced my parents that helping people and loving what I do was what mattered more. So, my path led me to nonprofit management. It’s a career path that allows me to work with the community and support myself.
Q. Did you collect some skills from other jobs along the way that have proved surprisingly applicable? If so, explain.
A. Most people assume nonprofit means organizations do not operate as a business. The skills I have learned along the way and incorporated throughout my career include standard operating procedures, budgeting, budget forecast and human resource policies that surprisingly are lacking in some service-oriented programs. It is important to sustain our work, so running our organization like a business is my job. This allows our staff to continue providing the compassion, love and service our families need.
Q. What would the average Catholic be most surprised to learn about your job?
A. Catholics will be most surprised to learn about the people we serve. Most of the misinformation about our population is heartbreaking. I get to see every day the many Latino families who built this community and continue to make an economic impact.
Catholics would be surprised to learn of the many stories of our families that resemble the stories of us all and our ancestors.
Q. Who does your ministry primarily serve?
A. El Centro serves Latino individuals and families living in Wyandotte and Johnson counties in Kansas who are predominantly Spanish speaking, many undocumented, underserved and uninsured.
Q. What do you wish everybody knew about your ministry?
A. We have been in service for 45 years and provide many opportunities for our faith community to support and volunteer, all the while meeting incredible people.
Q. Why does the world need more of what you’re offering, do you think, especially right now?
A. The racial and economic inequities in our country were exposed in the COVID-19 pandemic. We saw essential workers unable to work from home, remaining vulnerable to the virus while keeping our community going. Our families lacked rental agreements, an understanding of their housing and workforce rights and, of course, many families lacked internet and hardware for their children to move into the virtual world. We need to make equity a part of everything we do, including education, housing, health care and workforce. This takes all of us, policy change and funding, especially now.
Q. What have you learned about people in this job?
A. We all want a place to call home, belong and be respected.
I learned that, despite the fact that I have some privilege because of the tables I sit at, that I am no different. But I need to use this privilege to be a voice, build voices, and create safe and welcoming spaces for all, no matter where I sit or what I do in my work.
Q. What have you learned about yourself?
A. I have learned I must listen to understand, and work to be understood to find common ground on any issue important enough to fight for.
Q. How has it changed the way you view your identity as a Catholic?
A. I was raised Catholic. I believe in the values of the church. I have not changed my views or views as a Catholic. My work has only strengthened my actions to see Jesus in all, to be less judgmental, to believe more in humanity, to always give and love more.
Irene Caudillo is married to Ryan and the proud mother of Julian, Sophia and Olivia. They live in Kansas City, Kansas, and are members of Christ the King Church there.
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