By Juan Martín Vélez
Editor’s note: This story is part of New/Nueva Opinión’s Contributions and Challenges of the Latinx Community in Kalamazoo series, and is funded by the Kalamazoo Community Foundation. New/Nueva Opinión is a fellow member of the Southwest Michigan Journalism Collaborative and was kind enough to share this story with Watershed Voice readers. This article can be read in Spanish here.
As you walk into the former Catholic school now housing the administration and main programs offered by El Concilio, it may not immediately occur that the non-profit has been around for over 40 years. Founded in January 1981 as the Hispanic American Council of Kalamazoo, El Concilio has grown into one of the main Latinx cultural organizations in the entire area of Southwest Michigan. With its 40th anniversary now a full year behind us, we at New Opinion took the opportunity to speak with its executive director Adrian Vazquez as well as some of its employees and members of its board of directors to look back on what El Concilio has accomplished over the past year, and what the new year has in store for them, the organization, and the community at large.
The continued impact of the COVID-19 pandemic affected organizations across the country, and El Concilio was no exception. “We’ve lost a lot of tutors and our volunteers,” says Vazquez as he explains the effects of the pandemic on the organization’s student-dependent tutoring and mentorship programs. “A lot of them had to stay home, so that means they’re not here in Kalamazoo—so that means we have to recruit new volunteers that are bilingual.”
Indeed, Quintero tells us, many of the bilingual volunteer positions they need most remain vacant, and some programs have struggled from the forced switch to videoconferencing and other long-distance methods of communication. Along with the ongoing personnel issues, budgetary constraints, including the exhaustion of emergency COVID funds, have forced El Concilio to cut back some of its programs. While the organization hasn’t outright cut any programs, services like tutoring have seen cutbacks as the limited number of volunteers has left staff struggling to easily provide the tutoring or after-school care that many community members need. Overall, the pandemic seems to have impacted El Concilio’s ability to easily provide educational and cultural services to everyone in the community who needs them.
But it hasn’t been all hardship over the past year for El Concilio, by any means. In fact, the organization has managed to expand some of its programs despite the effects of COVID-19. New programs such as one offering financial support for struggling families were successfully implemented, offering community members unable to take advantage of government benefits a means of support.
Vazquez counts the establishment of a grant system to support small Latinx-owned businesses through pandemic conditions as another successful endeavor. Having raised $200,000 and $30,000 for each program over the past year, respectively, El Concilio plans to continue them for as long as the community needs.
Previous programs have also continued, if at reduced levels. Indeed, El Concilio has managed to avoid cutting outright any programs despite pandemic conditions. For now, the focus is primarily on maintaining current levels of service rather than expanding program offerings. “We’re focused on the quality and making changes based on the needs of the youth and the family we serve,” explains Vazquez. He expresses pride in El Concilio’s fundraising, noting how the money they have raised has helped them get financial support for families in need in the area. “After a few months of the pandemic, people were struggling with paying funeral costs or other things,” he says. “There wasn’t any support for them, so El Concilio was able to [raise those funds] for them.”
Vazquez credits the ability of El Concilio to not just stay afloat but thrive during the pandemic to its staff members and volunteers, who even under extenuating circumstances made sure its programs could keep running and emergency services could be implemented. Despite the difficulties of virtual tutoring, volunteers kept participating in tutoring and mentorship programs, something which Quintero credits as having kept their 1st-9th grade tutoring program strong throughout 2021. “It wouldn’t be possible without our volunteers,” he tells us. For El Concilio, these volunteers help keep their most prominent programs available and accessible to all who might need them.
Going forward into this year, Vazquez hopes to increase the number of enrollees in El Concilio’s current programs and institute new programs such as a summer camp and expanded free mental health services for uninsured families. “We’re going to continue to request more funding so that the program can stay with El Concilio,” he says. Other goals include expanding partnerships with organizations across Michigan to build a statewide network of support for the Latinx community.
Even bigger are plans for a move out of the current school building at St. Joseph Catholic Church into a new and bigger space better tailored to El Concilio’s needs. Though work remains preliminary and Vazquez & the board of directors has yet to identify a suitable site, the process to eventually undertake the move has already been set in motion. It’ll be a few years before efforts bear fruit, but leadership is already committed to moving El Concilio to a new home, coupled with plans for further expansion and custom tailoring of programs.
Most of all, though, Vazquez’s biggest wish for the new year is that the community can be well served by his organization. “We always ask for feedback from the community,” he explains. “If there’s something that we don’t have or something that we can create, let us know.” President and vice-president of El Concilio’s board of directors Maria Diaz and Lissette Mira-Amaya agree.
Diaz, who has served as president of the board of directors since last October, is bank manager of Huntington Bank’s Paw Paw branch and has been a recognized activist for Southwest Michigan’s Latinx community since moving from Chicago in 2000. She describes herself as “enthusiastic to serve the local community.”
Mira-Amaya, who has worked with El Concilio since shortly after its founding, has served as vice president for the past two years. She currently works at fellow Kalamazoo nonprofit Family and Children Services, where she dedicates herself to treating the mental health needs of Kalamazoo County’s Latinx community. “There’s been a gap in the services offered to this population by culturally immersed medics. [The organization] Kalamazoo Community Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services is fulfilling the need through a contract with Family and Children Services to offer therapy to young Latinx community members and their families. It’s been a particular interest of mine for many years, [and] I’ve been very proud to be a part of the solution to these types of problems,” she tells us.
For those interested in helping El Concilio with its mission, Vazquez and staff members alike emphasize the importance of getting involved. “Not a lot of people get involved with events,” says community manager Isela Flores, encouraging interested volunteers to participate in the various events held by them throughout the year. Vazquez concurs, discussing their need for bilingual tutors at a moment when many of their previous tutors are no longer available for the necessary programs. Even if readers can’t help out through volunteer work or events, donations are still greatly appreciated and help keep El Concilio afloat. No matter how readers choose to get involved, everyone at El Concilio emphasizes how important it is to help out in any way possible so that they—and you—can better serve the community.
Juan Martin Velez is a student of Cultural Studies, U3, at McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, is an intern at New/New Opinion, and is a resident of Kalamazoo County.