Healdsburg’s Corazón creating a ‘college-going’ culture

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Latino Life

Read more stories celebrating the local Latino community here

Jose Gutiérrez, a retired vineyard worker who came to Healdsburg 35 years ago from Jalisco, Mexico, tried taking English classes in the past, but said he was always too busy with work to stick with them.

Now the 70-year-old father of eight children and grandfather of 10 is in his second semester of English and says “little by little I’m learning English. It’s very important to learn. It’s never too late.”

“It’s very important to talk to everybody,” he said, explaining how he can use his new language proficiency “at the store, or the doctor.”

Gutiérrez’s comments came during a morning break from an English-as-a-Second-Language class offered through Corazón Healdsburg, whose mission is to bridge the racial and economic divide and break cycles of poverty to improve the quality of life for Latino families.

The nonprofit organization, which opened its doors in 2016, operates a drop-in center where residents can obtain assistance or referrals to find housing, address immigration questions, connect with legal aid and medical help and even get free groceries once a month.

“It’s a safe place, where people feel comfortable. Their language is spoken and they see people that look like them,” said Corazón’s Director of Community Engagement Leticia Romero, as she sat near a wall mural with colorful images of iconic Latino personalities. Depicted are farm labor leaders Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, artist Frida Kahlo and Mexico’s first indigenous president, Benito Juárez.

Located in Healdsburg’s Community Center — the former Foss Creek Elementary School campus now owned by the city — Corazón makes use of the classrooms to conduct twice-weekly English sessions taught by Santa Rosa Junior College instructors in the mornings and evenings. Corazón also provides infant and child day care on-site for enrolled parents.

There are classes taught in Spanish for financial literacy and high school equivalency diploma. Clients can access a computer, take a math class to start a small business and even get help with income tax preparation.

More than 1,000 clients a year are served by the educational programs, according to Chief Executive Officer Ariel Kelley.

“Corazón” — the Spanish word for heart — was the brainchild of local restaurateurs Ari Rosen and Dawnelise Regnery Rosen who, about 10 years ago, began holding fundraising dinners with a goal to raise $50,000 to launch the nonprofit.

Rosen, who grew up in Ukiah and attended cross-cultural events organized by Nuestra Casa Mendocino, saw the need for a similar organization to provide social services for Healdsburg’s Latino residents, who comprise 34% of the population, according to the 2010 Census.

Mexican immigrants are considered the backbone of Healdsburg’s hotel, restaurant and wine industry, but are also among the lowest paid.

Donors have stepped up to help through Corazón, boosting its annual budget to $399,000.

“We’re successful because of the generosity of the community, but also the strength of our work,” Kelley said.

Last year the Healdsburg City Council approved a three-year lease for Corazón to move into the Community Center classrooms and offices in 2017, in exchange for providing services such as translation and outreach to the Latino community for city recreational programs, nutritional health and wellness and public safety workshops.

Latino Life

Read more stories celebrating the local Latino community here

Kelley said it’s the layering on of different services for a variety of needs for families that has helped make Corazón viable.

Education is seen as paramount to ending the cycle of poverty, which is why Corazón created the “FirstGen College” counseling program to help promising students prepare for and apply to four-year universities, to become the first in their families to complete college.

Among the 40 families signed up for FirstGen is Gutiérrez’s daughter, Yuliana, a senior at Healdsburg High School.

FirstGen’s program director is former Healdsburg High School principal Lori Rhodes, who earned her Ph.D. in education from Stanford and is a professor of educational leadership at Sonoma State University.

Corazón also just landed a $110,000 state grant to make down payments for college savings accounts for every kindergartner in Healdsburg public schools and some adjoining districts.

“We are building a college-going culture,” said Romero.

Corazón also tries to help families find affordable housing, a scarce commodity in Healdsburg, which has the highest home sale median price in Sonoma County at $804,000.

“There’s a horrible dilemma of lack of housing,” said Romero. “It’s not just low-income. It’s also working class struggling to find affordable housing.”

Lizbeth Perez, the recently hired programs coordinator, initially came to Corazón two years ago to get help finding housing when she and her family faced eviction. “I was terrified to lose my home and be homeless,” she said.

Perez, who immigrated from Mexico in 2001, worked as a prep cook and on a bottling line, she said, because those were the only jobs she could get with her limited, but since improved English.

Kelley estimates about half of Corazón’s clients are immigrants who arrived in the past 10 to 20 years.

“I know how difficult it is to live as an immigrant,” Perez said of the cultural differences, lack of understanding about systems and requirements, the sense of isolation and struggle to find affordable housing.

“It’s breaking my heart. We have single moms with children living in living rooms,” Perez said of the housing crunch. “There’s nothing for those families. It’s sad they have to move.”

Corazón has been able to relocate people facing eviction with assistance from Reach For Home, a nonprofit that assists families on the verge of becoming homeless. In some instances, the aid has come in the form of a deposit, plus first- and last-month’s rent.

Corazón’s profile grew substantially when it began throwing annual “Dia De Los Muertos” or Day of the Dead celebrations, a late October fiesta that went from 300 people in its first year to 5,000 in 2018. It not only brings Anglos and Latinos together, Romero said, but generations, from the smallest child to the elderly.

“This is a huge indication the community really wanted to be visible and have a voice,” Romero said of the crowds that turned out, composed of Healdsburg-area Latinos, joined by people from Windsor, Cloverdale, Napa, Guerneville, and as far away as San Francisco.

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