Alemán Supports Community

February 27, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — The Hispanic Center of Western Michigan probably feels a little like home to Emily Alemán. All the while she and her 14 siblings were growing up, her parents advocated for migrant farm workers and regularly opened the doors of their home to migrants in need of a night or a week’s stay, a few meals or some extra items of clothing. Her father, who also was a migrant worker, would literally give the shirt off his back to help someone out. He became the first Hispanic deacon ordained in the Diocese of Kalamazoo.

“A lot of what the center does, my family has been doing for years,” Alemán said. “My parents’ personal mission was to help everyone. That was the lifestyle we lived.”

Alemán continues that mission today as executive director of the Hispanic Center where the focus is on helping individuals and families become self-sufficient and integrate and participate more fully in the West Michigan community. To that end, the center encourages Hispanics to learn English and expand their educational level if they want to move ahead.

“Education is a great equalizer,” she said. “We encourage people to learn English, but we never ask anyone to give up their language or culture.”

The center provides advocacy for the Hispanic community; about 95 percent of its clients are Hispanic — Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, El Salvadorians and Mexicans. The center’s mission is to “maximize the potential” of Hispanics in the area. Its services are much needed, given the fact that the Hispanic community in Kent County has tripled in the last decade to more than 40,000, Alemán pointed out.

The nonprofit advocacy organization was established in 1978 to give a voice to the under-represented and marginalized Hispanic and immigrant population in West Michigan, and it has become a touchstone for Hispanic families in the region.

The center offers a variety of services, including employment assistance, immigration assistance, translation and interpretation services, educational programs such as English as a second language, cultural competency training for companies and organizations, a youth program, English immersion computer classes for adults, and domestic violence and mental health services, among others. The center assisted more than 10,000 people last year.

The Hispanic Center operates with a bilingual and bicultural staff of 11 who help provide a non-intimidating, culturally responsive environment for Spanish-speaking people. The organization also contracts with as many as 40 interpreters, as well as counselors and program instructors, and is served by a volunteer attorney who does pro bono legal work for the center’s clientele. Staff members also work with a variety of community agencies to provide necessary services.

Alemán earned bachelor’s degrees in both marketing and Spanish and started her career in San Francisco, first as a special education program coordinator for the Rise Institute, a private school, and later as a human resources coordinator for the international minerals company BHP Minerals, where she coordinated employee training and recruitment. She went on to serve as administrative director of the E Ala ’Ike Day Treatment Center in Honokaa, Hawaii, and as senior human resources administrator for MacDonald’s Industrial Products automotive plant in Grand Rapids, and then as cultural relations director for Fennville Public Schools, where she developed and directed the migrant and bilingual program. At both the Rise Institute and the day treatment center in Hawaii, she worked with at-risk youth. Her training includes more than 200 hours in psycho-therapeutic approaches in child development.

Alemán hired on as executive director of the Hispanic Center in 2003. The position had been advertised once before, but it wasn’t until the second time it came up that she offered her résumé. Looking back, she thinks it may have been destiny that brought her to the position.

“I love what I do,” she said, “It’s very gratifying.”

Alemán oversees a $700,000 annual budget. About half of the cost of running the center is covered by the organization’s for-profit translation and interpretation services; it also receives funding from the United Way, area foundations and private donors.

For a long time the Hispanic Center was located in the old brick Engine House No. 12 in the heart of the Roosevelt Park Neighborhood and Latino community. But the building’s deteriorating condition forced the center to relocate in 1998, and staff moved in with Clinica Santa Maria at 730 Grandville Ave. SW, a family health clinic managed by Saint Mary’s Health Care. The Hispanic Center had negotiated an agreement with Saint Mary’s in 1989 to open the clinic.

The Roosevelt Park Neighborhood Association subsequently spearheaded a capital campaign and drummed up $1.4 million to rehab the old firehouse at 1204 Grandville Ave. SW. Individual donors, corporations and local foundations contributed to the campaign, as did a $100,000 Cool Cities grant awarded to the neighborhood association in June 2005. The Hispanic Center staff returned to the newly renovated 6,300-square-foot building last November, where it now has three times the space it had before, allowing it to expand its English and computer classes.

Someday, Alemán said, she’d like to see satellite offices of the Hispanic Center so its outreach can be expanded to serve more Hispanics.    

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