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The Philadelphia Inquirer

Reaching Out To Aid Latino Populace; An Agency Based In Kennett Square Tries To Make A Difference

A Fresh Face Is At The Helm

By Susan Weidener

5 December 2004
Copyright © 2004 The Philadelphia Inquirer. All rights reserved. 

In his new position as executive director of La Comunidad Hispana, Isidoro Gonzalez Jr. is revisiting familiar territory.

It is a place where the impoverished and disenfranchised live, people who go unnoticed by the rest of the world, Gonzalez says.

He has taken action to help those with AIDS, and even been arrested while doing so. His passion is for the poor, the homeless.

Now, as more Mexican families move into the area, Gonzalez will lead the social and health-services agency in Kennett Square that serves Latinos and low-income families.

"I felt the connection," Gonzalez, 47, said after meeting the migrant workers in southern Chester County's Mexican community. "The community was like the ones I had been working with before. There are the same pressing needs of basic services, housing, health care."

La Comunidad Hispana, which began in 1973, took up residence a year ago in a former auto dealership on East State Street, which is lined with storefronts, restaurants and Victorian houses. As many as 40 people, mostly Spanish-speaking, walk in each day, seeking help with prenatal care, job training and more.

Last year, the agency's health center, Project Salud, served almost 900 people, mostly uninsured. The group administered flu vaccine to workers in mushroom camps and offered programs on HIV and AIDS risk reduction.

Gonzalez's challenge, said Joan Holliday, president of the board, will be to increase funding. The nonprofit agency operates on an annual budget of about $1.3 million, much of it from private donations. Streamlining computer operations and services and enlisting the help of volunteers to teach English to Mexican youths are priorities.

Holliday expects that Gonzalez will bring an alchemy of compassion and pragmatism to the job. "He understands the needs of many levels of people," she said.

Gonzalez will be paid $75,000 a year. He is house-hunting in the Kennett area. He and his wife, Victoria, who grew up in West Chester, have two girls, and twin boys due in April.

An administrator with Project Hospitality in New York before coming to La Comunidad Hispana, he assisted the homeless and Mexican day laborers of Port Richmond and Staten Island.

Gonzalez has more than 20 years' experience as an administrator in government, health and social-service agencies. He has developed medically licensed outpatient clinics and residential facilities for the homeless. He has advocated on behalf of immigrant laborer issues in the area of labor law, health care and services.

"He is a loving human being, profoundly committed to the poor and people who suffer injustice," said the Rev. Terry Troia, executive director of Project Hospitality.

Born in Brooklyn, Gonzalez moved to Puerto Rico when he was 9. He graduated from medical school in the Dominican Republic and planned to become a psychiatrist until his younger brother developed AIDS.

To be close to his brother, Gonzalez moved in 1983 to the East Village in Manhattan, where there was a large Latino population, with many intravenous drug abusers.

"The way I saw it," he said of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, "we were in the middle of a war, and AIDS was war. For me, it was horrifying to be in the middle of an AIDS epidemic and not have the resources to help the community."

At times, he was arrested for protesting cuts in services, whether it was food, housing or medication. He demonstrated with others, closing downtown streets in front of government offices in New York.

After President Bill Clinton signed the Medicaid Reform Bill and visited New York to celebrate his 50th birthday, Gonzalez got some plastic bullhorns before Clinton rose to speak at Radio City Music Hall.

"About 13 of us made our statements about the effect the reform would have on people who were chronically ill," he said. For his activism, he said, he spent 48 hours in jail.

His brother, a fashion designer, died of AIDS in 1991 at age 33.

Gonzalez said his passion for the disenfranchised could be traced not just to his brother, but also his father, who cut sugar cane in Puerto Rico before moving to New York for a better life. The message at home was to give back to the community.

Over the years, Gonzalez continued to help those in need.

"A lot of people were dying," he said. "They did not have health care. They were facing discrimination, barriers of language and culture."

That's where he began developing community networks, to help the poor and the sick. It is something he hopes to replicate in his new job.

"It was a voluntary underground network of people. The need was great, and there were no services," Gonzalez said.

People Snapshot Isidoro Gonzalez Jr. Age: 47.

Other work experience: Deputy executive director of administration for Project Hospitality; assistant director, Housing Opportunities for People with AIDS; deputy director for Housing Works Inc.; director of health education and HIV/AIDS services for Phoenix House Foundation Inc.

For Information:

La Comunidad Hispana, 314 E. State St., Kennett Square, was founded in 1973 by farm-worker advocates, clergy and residents to serve Latino immigrants and low-income families in the Chester County area. To learn more about the agency, call 610-444-4545.

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