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The Star-Ledger

This Old La Casa Does More Than Ever - Agency Marks 30 Years Of Service


August 7, 2003
Copyright © 2003 The Star-Ledger. All rights reserved. 

As a longtime community development official, Ray Ocasio eschews the status quo, a trait that has made leading La Casa de Don Pedro his busiest task yet.

Ocasio, who took over as executive director of the redevelopment agency five years ago, seems more than up to the job. In the past three years, he has doubled La Casa's annual budget to $10 million, completed a $2.8 million community facility at 39 Broadway, and developed a comprehensive plan for the redevelopment of Newark's Lower Broadway area.

Much of the work is being done by La Casa itself. Its construction company also contracts with other Newark nonprofit agencies.

"As Newark is changing, La Casa is changing," Ocasio said. And so is Lower Broadway, the area where most of the agency's redevelopment efforts are concentrated and 150 units of new and renovated housing, including the Mount Prospect Heights Townhomes, have sprung up.

Thirty-one years ago, when La Casa was founded, most of its clients were low- and moderate-income Puerto Ricans. Today, in step with the times, the agency also serves large numbers of Ecuadorians, Peruvians, Colombians and Mexicans seeking a foothold in the American dream.

Over the years, La Casa, whose services range from preschool and English language classes to workplace literacy and credit union enrollment services, has spread its wings beyond Newark. Of La Casa's 22,500 clients, 16,500 are Essex County residents whose incomes qualify for home energy assistance. La Casa alerted them to the program and helped them enroll. Last winter, the clients saved more than $1.6 million in heating bills through the program. Nearly 300 households also benefited from La Casa's Weatherization Assistance Program.

Listed as one of the top 25 Hispanic Nonprofit Organizations of 2002 by Hispanic Business Magazine, the agency also received the 2002 Excellence in Hispanic Leadership Award for a nonprofit organization from the state Department of Community Affairs' Center for Hispanic Policy Research and Development.

La Casa de Don Pedro was founded in 1972 by 10 Newark Latino leaders who came together to explore self-sufficiency and empowerment. The agency opened Familia Unidas, the state's first bilingual cultural day care center, the following year.

In 1974, La Casa received its first grant, for youth services, from the Victoria Foundation.

The request for the grant came from Ramon Rivera, whose youthful politicizing as a member of the activist group the Young Lords led him to settle in Newark and build La Casa from the ground up as its executive director for 23 years.

"Howard Quirk, our executive director at the time, was extremely impressed by Ramon's community organizing skills," said Catherine McFarland, the current executive director.

"Early on, Ramon realized that the Hispanic community was better off looking to the county and state for support rather than local government," she said. "And he was very successful at it."

Rivera, who has lived in Puerto Rico since his retirement, credits his successors, Angelo Gonzalez and Ocasio, with keeping alive the vision of La Casa's founders by advocating for the poor people of the community and keeping the organization sound. "They've institutionalized the labor I put in for 24 years, which is very important," he said by telephone from Puerto Rico.

Presently, La Casa serves 165 preschool children, more than 300 children between the ages of 6 and 18 who participate in after-school programs, leadership development efforts and family activities. An additional 183 children benefit from day care services.

La Casa's Federal Credit Union, which provides clients with low-interest loans, saving plans, and financial planning education, dates to 1985. More than 175 people joined the first year.

In 1990, the Hispanic Women's Resource Center opened, one of three centers established statewide with a $100,000 grant from the state.

Each of the services, whether it's assistance sought by a victim of domestic violence or the opportunity to gain job skills or learn English, is offered in a friendly environment where the emphasis is on personal interaction, Ocasio explained.

Kristen Strickler's English as a Second Language class at 39 Broadway is a prime example.

"I'm here because I need to learn (better) English so that I can start my own business," said Adriana Arias, who came to the United States three years ago from Colombia and is taking advanced classes. Her dream is to do what she did in Colombia: own her own florist shop.

La Casa's role in Newark's physical revitalization began in 1991 with the creation of the Don Pedro Housing Corp.

Today, the agency operates its own construction company, responsible for projects that include the physical makeover of its headquarters site at 75 Park Ave. and the renovations at 39 Broadway.

"We also assist other nonprofits like United Vailsburg (Services Organization), Club El Barrio, and Lady Liberty Ironbound Community Corporation's charter schools," Ocasio said.

Ocasio has been involved in neighborhood development for more than three decades, working with the national nonprofit organization Local Initiatives Support Corp., based in New York, and with several Central and South American communities.

Under his leadership, La Casa is looking forward to the day when residents of Lower Broadway area can shop locally rather than travel a distance. Negotiations are under way to secure a long-vacant parcel of land between the Episcopal House of Prayer near the Lackawanna Railroad overpass and the Burger King at Clay Street and turn it into a supermarket and shopping plaza.

Ocasio also is eyeing a triangular strip at the foot of Bloomfield Avenue that connects Broad Street and Broadway for a complete commercial overhaul. He envisions the parcel's lower section as a welcoming entranceway to the North Ward, much like the area where Springfield and South Orange avenues meet at Martin Luther King Boulevard.

Whatever development occurs, Ocasio said, will be baseless without improved educational facilities in the North Ward.

"The commercial stuff will happen on its own and in conjunction with others," he said. "A community school is the most critical part of the area's redevelopment. It's a key link in what we plan to accomplish."

In the meantime, La Casa's network of clients, staff members and administrators have been celebrating the nonprofit's 30th anniversary of community service.

The yearlong celebration began last November with a tribute to its founders, funders and friends. The founders include key leaders in Newark's Latino community: the Rev. Alfonso Roman, educator Hilda Hidalgo, businessman Miguel Rodriguez and Judge Amilkar Velez.

"The agency has grown into a true community institution serving the needs of the Latino and other minorities in the city of Newark," said Roman, also retired and living in Puerto Rico. "It has grown tremendously since the early days when we started the day care center. At that time, we were trying to development a Latino institution in the city to compete, in a sense, with the other ethnic organizations. I think that has been accomplished effectively. We are very proud of La Casa."

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