Inside a small blue house near downtown, the art of making sure people don’t fall through cracks is practiced daily.
Latino immigrants — both documented and undocumented, Spanish speakers and those whose primary tongue is indigenous — have gone to Centro Hispano since 2006 for bilingual mental health services, case management or help trying to parse bureaucratic language in legal documents or applications.
“There’s still a lot of discrimination here,” said Sally Sanko, whose case management position was made possible by an AmeriCorps grant. “Many people are not willing to work with Spanish speakers. I have had apartments and daycares hang up on me when I say where I’m from.”
Centro Hispano may have been founded in 2006, but its origins trace to 2000, when Douglas County public health nurses and the parish at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church noted a rise in Latino immigrants and Spanish-speaking parishioners.
A coalition of the two groups eventually founded the center through a grant to the local Success by 6 Coalition — a Kansas Health Foundation-assisted collaboration of agencies serving families and young children.
Centro Hispano’s director, Lydia Diebolt, and its small staff — Sanko, a soon-to-be-added part-time position and a fall intern — work quietly. Becoming this month’s change recipient at The Merc Co-op is as much publicity Centro Hispano typically receives or seeks. But John Schmeidler, St. John's pastor from 2004 to 2013, said its absence wouldn’t go unnoticed.
“Who knows,” Schmeidler said of the Latino community’s fate without Centro Hispano. “Probably floundering. It’s always a hard thing to say what would happen if you didn’t fill a void that needed filled.”
Mourning an idea of life here
Centro Hispano was first led by Lydia Leon, then came under the directorship of another Lydia when Diebolt took over in 2009.
Diebolt said Centro Hispano’s focus lately has been case management and early intervention services for families with young children — providing mental health services to young Latinos by eliminating barriers such as language, transportation, lack of documentation and financial constraints.
Without Centro Hispano, Diebolt said it's unlikely that some of the center’s undocumented clients would be willing to risk traveling to Kansas City or Topeka for help. And as one of the only bilingual hubs for social services in the county, Diebolt said Centro Hispano doesn’t have enough staff to meet the needs of a growing population. At last tally, Census estimates found Latinos to make up more than 5 percent of Douglas County’s total population.
“Latinos are underserved in Douglas County,” Diebolt said.
One point of collaboration has been with the Douglas County District Attorney’s Office, which Diebolt said has helped connect undocumented domestic violence victims with resources like U visas, which grant temporary legal status and work eligibility for victims of felonies.
Diebolt said after three years, those with U visas may apply for permanent legal residency. In recent years, Diebolt said, Centro Hispano and the district attorney’s office has helped connect 14 people with U visas, including two young mothers who recently obtained green cards.
One woman, with two children, ages 1 and 8, is now training to be a nurse in Johnson County.
“She won’t need to depend on a man to pay her bills and doesn’t need to stay in a relationship that hurts her,” Diebolt said. “She’s now imagining life with possibilities.”
But when she came to Centro Hispano, the life she was living in the United States was not as she imagined for herself. It’s a common thread shared by many who walk up to Centro Hispano’s stoop.
“They’re mourning what they think life would be here,” Diebolt said.
‘People have crises’
Diebolt said Centro Hispano needs funding for another case management position, especially for children ages 3 to 5. While unaccompanied minors arriving in droves from at the country’s border with Mexico have captured the nation’s attention, Diebolt said the Spanish-speaking population of Lawrence is in the midst of a different trend.
“We don’t see a lot of people coming anymore,” she said. “More people are staying here and having families.”
A study published this month by the Kansas Association of School Boards found that within five years about 22 percent of the total student body in Kansas will be Hispanic, primarily a result of births among those already here instead of migration to the state.
But that doesn’t make the stories of recent arrivals any less harrowing.
Diebolt said she doesn’t press for detail, but stories still spill out. Take the one family who lived in a Mexican town where education ended at fifth grade and either crime or labor followed. Not long before they left, Diebolt said, a bag of bodies was found near their child’s school.
Once here, however, their needs only differ from those of other demographic group's in the barriers they face when obtaining services.
“People have crises,” Diebolt said. “Just like any other population.”
Schmeidler credited Leon for getting the ball rolling and Diebolt for building the center to its current stature.
“It just turned out to be a great resource for the Hispanic community and also enhanced the life of St. John’s,” Schmeidler said. “They could see such good people being helped — a part of the community that couldn’t be a part if Centro Hispano wasn’t there.”