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Worcester Telegram & Gazette

Centro Celebrates Jubilee; Worcester Agency Marks 25th Year

By Chris Echegaray

June 8, 2003
Copyright © 2003 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved. 

WORCESTER -- Jaime Flores and several other volunteers would rent two vans and drive to Cambridge to pick up large quantities of food for the food bank of a startup community agency that was initially slated to be an autonomous cultural center.

That was more than 20 years ago. That cultural center and its food bank -- Centro Las Americas -- have served the community for 25 years. Last night that quarter-century anniversary was celebrated at the Holiday Inn, 500 Lincoln St.

The social service agency has evolved from a volunteer movement to a professionally operated agency, and has survived despite hard economic times and internal power struggles.

The agency now has an estimated $1 million annual budget, with Orlando Rodriguez, the agency's new executive director, at the helm. The agency's mission has remained the same over 25 years: It is dedicated to serving the burgeoning Latino community.

"We've struggled to get here," said Mr. Flores, who has served on Centro's board and now writes for the Spanish newspaper Vocero. "We've had ups and downs, but this means we're here to stay."

Gladys Rodriguez-Parker, of the office of U.S. Rep. James P. McGovern, D-Worcester, recalls when she was a volunteer and the grass-roots agency was housed on Wellington Street ... and the roof literally caved in. The agency moved to 11 Sycamore St., its current location.

"I was out of college and I thought I could do things to save the world," she said. "During a short period of time it went from a volunteer center to a $34,000 budget to a $650,000 (annual) budget in 1991."

Ms. Rodriguez-Parker said that the agency has grown exponentially, and she expects it to be at the forefront of community events and debates.

"This thing has been the issue of today, yesterday and tomorrow, leadership," she said. "We have to have a leadership that will bring the city together, that will agree or disagree with what's going on in the city."

Mr. McGovern, last night's keynote speaker, went a step further addressing the dozens of people, stating that the agency is "needed more than ever." He said that the government is retreating from its responsibility of servicing people in need, the people who need it the most.

Mr. Rodriguez said that the agency has to stay grounded with a "crawl-walk-run theory" during a tough economic climate, with limited available funds.

Hector Reyes, a former executive director of the Latin Association for Progress and Action -- ALPA for short -- said Centro Las Americas was originally going to be a cultural center for the Latinos in the city.

"It was going to be a place for young people to go," he said. "There would be no outside funding, no strings attached."

Mr. Reyes also recalls that in the late 1950s and 1960s his was one of two-dozen Latino families living in the city.

"There were only 24 of us in 1959," he said with a smile. "I remember taking a bus and I was asked where I was from. I would say that I'm from Puerto Rico. Some asked if Puerto Rico was in Europe."

Honored last night were agency volunteers, Mayor Timothy P. Murray, City Manager Thomas R. Hoover, the United Way of Central Massachusetts, Executive Office of Health and Human Services and the Greater Worcester Community Foundation.

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