Local Hispanic Council returns at perfect time

<p>Jorge Gutierrez, the executive director of the Lower Columbia Hispanic Council (LCHC), talks with students in his GED test preparation class Wednesday at Clatsop Community College's Columbia Hall. </p>

With an infusion of new grant money, the Lower Columbia Hispanic Council is focusing on providing education and business development opportunities for the region’s Hispanic population.

Census figures show they comprise 8 percent of residents in Pacific and Clatsop counties. In Pacific County, they totaled 1,677 in 2010, up nearly 60 percent from 2000 when they totaled 1,052.

The nonprofit organization applied for grants during a rebuilding process. Those funds have been used to start GED test preparation classes twice a week and are earmarked to help clients start businesses or enroll in higher education.

Council leaders say the Hispanic population is continuing to put down roots in the area instead of temporarily coming for seasonal work at canneries, hotels or the agricultural sector. With the more permanent population, an emphasis on education and starting businesses are seen as the next steps for ongoing integration with local communities.

“People who first came basically lived in certain sections in the city (Astoria) and you didn’t seem them,” said Patricia Morrissey, one of the founders of the council and a current board member. “Little by little, the community has been integrating.”

With grants from Pacific Power Foundation and U.S. Bank, the council has partnered with Clatsop Community College to begin classes in Spanish for Hispanics seeking their high school equivalency credential, which are the first to be offered in the Columbia-Pacific region.

Taking the lead

Jorge Gutierrez, who was hired as program manager at the organization, became executive director in October. Gutierrez teaches the classes at CCC’s main campus in Astoria Wednesdays and the south county campus in Seaside Thursdays. Many of the more than 20 students are simultaneously learning English.

“It’s something we’ve been looking at for a while to provide to the community,” said Morrissey.

The GED classes are tied to an employment assistance program to assist students with putting together resumes, cover letters and using online resources to find jobs.

“The goal is once they do obtain their GED and improve their English skills, then they’ll be able to get jobs that go beyond the traditional low-paying jobs,” said Gutierrez.

Obtaining a GED opens the doors to new opportunities, said Eileen Purcell, a council board member and literacy coordinator at CCC.

“Almost all jobs require at least a GED,” she said. “Some people want to be an apprentice and they need a GED in order to start that. It’s pretty significant.”

The GED classes in Spanish are a straight translation from the English version, giving students an introduction to American history and literature.

“That’s another benefit for people who are studying to get their U.S. citizenship,” said Purcell.

Norma Sanchez of Astoria is attending the class at the main campus on Wednesday evenings. She said through a translator that she was taking the course to have more career opportunities and hopes to someday work with children.

Viridiana Garcia also is attending classes in Astoria and wants to be a nursing assistant. “I want to get a better job,” she said.

How it began

The Hispanic Council formed in the early 1990s. It grew through the decade and registered as a nonprofit organization in 2005. For years, it has helped Hispanics integrate by providing translation and interpretation services, tax filing assistance, providing information on community resources and more. The group has also brought the Mexican Consulate from Portland to the region once a year to process identification documents. It had a dental van go out to provide services to the community with the help of Seaside Providence and held health workshops. The council has clients in Pacific and Clatsop counties, as well as Tillamook and Lincoln counties south along the Oregon coast.

Social services were initially unprepared for the influx, so the council was routinely called out to help. The organization is still called out, but Gutierrez said part of the organization’s strategy moving forward is to go beyond being a go-between for Hispanics and local agencies.

In the early 1990s, Morrissey said there was a very small population of Hispanics in the region. The community has grown since and roughly doubled in the last 10 years.

The U.S. Census Bureau records population estimates for people who identify as Hispanic or Latino, which includes those of Mexican, Puerto Rican and Cuban descent as well people from Central and South American countries.

In 2000, the census put the population at 4.5 percent in Clatsop County and 5 percent in Pacific County. According to its latest estimates, nearly 3,000 people identify as Hispanic or Latino in Clatsop County. In Pacific County, there now are about 1,800 or 8.6 percent of the total estimated population, which is more than 20,000.

But Gutierrez said the Hispanic population is likely under-reported. “To a large degree it’s still a very hidden population,” he said.

While traditionally the population has worked in entry-level, often low-paying positions, Morrissey said many are developing and starting their own businesses.

“We want to make sure they’re integrated economically and socially,” said Morrissey.

Savings plan

As partners with CASA of Oregon, the council will be overseeing the use of matched savings accounts for qualifying low-income Hispanics wanting to start their own business or pursue an education degree or certificate. The Individual Development Account or IDA is a special savings account that a person puts savings into to reach a set level. If that level is reached, then it is matched 3-to-1 or more with state, federal or charitable donations.

Gutierrez is also a business counselor at the Small Business Development Center and Clatsop Economic Development Resources (CEDR) at CCC. His dual roles will work in tandem with offering support for Hispanics seeking the matching savings account for businesses.

The money to match the accounts is distributed to those who go through a business education portion and develop a business plan, make sure they are set-up with accountants and are getting the appropriate business license requirements. The program through the council is scheduled to begin later this month and early next year.

“It’s a fantastic program and we feel really fortunate to have been selected to participate in it,” said Purcell.

While economic opportunities are part of the equation, council leaders also want to educate the public about Hispanic culture. The council puts on cultural events for the Hispanic population and the broader community to interact with each other.

In September, for National Hispanic Heritage Month, a community event at St. Mary, Star of the Sea Catholic Parish drew people from all different backgrounds. Gutierrez said it was a well-attended event, with a mariachi band, Mexican food and a raffle.

“The best thing that we took away from the event was just the fact that there were so many groups of people that would probably not interact downtown or wherever,” he said.

Gutierrez said next year the organization has more cultural events planned including its Cinco de Mayo and Hispanic Heritage Month events.

“These are events that are designed to showcase the positive things that the people are bringing to the community,” said Gutierrez.

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