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New York Daily News

Casita Maria A Home To Latinos For 70 Yrs.


June 20, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

ED SULLIVAN'S "REALLY BIG SHOW" ran for 23 years, but the charity founded by two of his relatives is still going strong at 70.

Casita Maria, founded in 1934 by public school teachers Elizabeth and Claire Sullivan, will celebrate its 70th year of service tomorrow with an awards breakfast at the New York Botanical Garden.

"Casita has been a beacon to immigrants since its founding," said Lue Ann Eldar, the executive director and CEO of Casita Maria, which is New York's oldest charity devoted to serving the city's Hispanic community.

Established at a time of surging immigration from Puerto Rico, Casita Maria took on the work that earlier settlement houses and mutual aid societies had done for past immigrant waves from Europe.

Early efforts focused on practical matters, such as language classes, housing help and employment advice to help the new arrivals assimilate into American society.

As the initial group of Puerto Rican immigrants began raising children in the city, Casita Maria's mission shifted to helping prepare the second generation to pursue the American Dream that had drawn their parents.

"It became apparent that we needed to concentrate on education," said Eldar.

Casita Maria, at 928 Simpson St., has comprehensive programs for kids ages 6 to 17 that include literacy development, tutoring, career exploration, computer instruction and sports in after-school programs and summer day camps.

Teenagers can participate in Casita Maria's career development program, which includes workshops, field trips and summer internship opportunities.

"We want to make an educational impact that would have a larger economic effect in the community," Eldar said.

In addition to academics and sports activities, Casita Maria runs innovative arts programs in collaboration with the Youth Orchestra of the Americas and the American Ballet Theater. The "Make a Ballet" program lets young dancers help choreograph their own ballets. The group has performed at the Apollo Theater and the Metropolitan Opera House.

Casita Maria recently received a federal grant for its arts education program from, of all places, the Department of Justice. The money comes from a fund earmarked for programs that engage at- risk kids.

"I don't like that term, 'at risk,' " said Eldar. "It sounds like there's something bad about them that we have to prevent, but this is about opening doors and giving them opportunities."

Last year, Casita Maria served nearly 14,000 individuals and families with its after-school and summer camp programs, health information and referrals, homeless intervention and emergency assistance and services for homebound seniors.

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