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An Open Door

Author: Dawn Marie Carlson
January, 2014 Issue


Award-winning Puertas Abiertas offers a variety of programs that lead to self-sufficiency for Napa County’s Latino community.

 
 
 
Immigration and immigrant populations have long been hot topics. Here in the North Bay, debates can be particularly compelling, because our labor-intensive agricultural products demand a labor force that has, for generations, been filled primarily by immigrants, both legal and not. And as these working communities attempt to establish themselves, they can face myriad challenges navigating established education, health care and legal systems—challenges that are often exacerbated by language barriers and cultural misunderstandings.
 
In Napa County, Puertas Abiertas collaborates with more than 35 local nonprofit organizations to provide health care and social service resources for the Latino community. The organization was founded as Spirit of Unity in 2004, through St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Napa, to bridge the gap between service providers and the Latino community by bringing together resources and by providing culturally sensitive intake and guided referrals. In 2013, more than 500 families received services, with two full-time and two part-time staff and a number of volunteers delivering its programs to the community.
 
Angela Peatman of Napa, a parishoner at St. John’s, is one of the organization’s founders and has been on its board continuously. “Puertas Abiertas was formed to meet the needs of a growing Latino population in Napa,” she says. “They’d come to the Catholic church for help, because that’s culturally what they did at home. The priests couldn’t handle all the requests for help. So, Father Gordon and some other parishioners decided to try to work with the nonprofits in Napa. He asked me to be on the founding board in 2005.”
 
Puertas Abiertas (which translates to “Open Doors”) became an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in 2005, and its Community Resource Center opened in 2007 at 952 Napa Street (in space rented from the Catholic diocese). “There are three Spanish masses per week across the street at St. John the Baptist. The church provides referrals and information to the Latino community about our organization, and it continues to be supportive and devotes a page in its weekly bulletin to our programs, services and special events,” says Rejane Brito, executive director of Puertas Abiertas.
 
Originally from Brazil, Brito, who speaks English, Spanish and Portuguese fluently, joined the organization more than four years ago, bringing nonprofit and international experience. Since then, she’s grown the organization with the involvement from staff, board members, supporters and volunteers. Her efforts were well rewarded when the Napa Chamber of Commerce and Mechanics Bank presented Puertas Abiertas with the 2013 Outstanding Nonprofit of the Year award at the Chamber’s annual Community Awards event. “We’re overjoyed,” wrote Brito in a message on the organization’s website. “There aren’t enough words to express how sincerely grateful and honored we are with this recognition. On behalf of our board, staff and clients served, I want to thank those who nominated Puertas Abiertas for this award, as well as our donors, funders, supporters, volunteers and partners.”
 
The award came as a surprise, although staff, board members and supporters were aware of the nomination by the community. In addition to the award, at the ceremony, the organization received certificates of recognition and proclamations from Mariko Yamada with the California State Assembly, California State Senator Louis Wolk and Congressman Mike Thompson.
 
Since the win, Brito says, “We’ve received more referrals and recognition from the community. We were well-known in a small circle, but [the award] was like shining a spotlight on the organization. More people heard about us and began referring people they knew who needed services. We created new, collaborative relationships with other organizations, worked on new initiatives and added a new program associate to our staff.”
 
Terence Mulligan, president of the Napa Valley Community Foundation, says, “Puertas Abiertas has built a safe and welcoming place where people can gain access to a host of important services for their families. It’s the go-to family resource center for many Latinos and immigrants in and around Napa. It offers a wide array of services, including citizenship and English as a Second Language [ESL] classes, free tax preparation, basic computer skills and a self-paced, adult education program for life and work skills.”
 
The need for the nonprofit’s services is great. In 2012, the U.S. Census Bureau recorded the Napa County Latino population as 33.1 percent, or about 46,024 people out of the total population of 139,045.
 
Alfredo Pedroza, Napa city councilmember, states, “Puertas Abiertas is a very important nonprofit organization in our community. Its successes, hands-on work and dedication to empowering Latinos in the community are visible every day among the individuals, families and children it’s helped. For Latinos in Napa, Puertas Abiertas is a place to get informed, empowered and connected.
 
“I’ve seen Puertas Abiertas—its staff, board and volunteers—in action, and their passion to help is unquestionable. At every opportunity, Puertas Abiertas steps up, like with the One Napa Initiative that’s creating pathways to citizenship,” says Pedroza, who’s also an assistant vice president at Mechanics Bank North Napa office as well as Napa’s first Latino councilmember.
 
 
 

A look around

 
When you enter the building, the welcoming environment feels like a home with the colorful painted walls decorated with artwork and friendly faces to greet you. “Frances Ortiz-Chavez, the center program director, is an artist, and she designed the interior to be welcoming,” says Peatman. “Programs and services are offered weekdays and some evenings for workers and after church on Sundays. We wanted the center to be open for the community members when they’re off work, which is important.”
 
“When someone needs services for the first time, they may be scared—not knowing whether the environment is safe,” Brito adds. “But once they’re here, they feel at home and safe. They’re helped with their needs either onsite or referred to the appropriate community resource. One woman came to us for the first time and we told her the services were free, so she brought cookies for the staff.”
 
Puertas Abiertas has four program areas: Self-Sufficiency, Healthy Living, Community Engagement and Latino Outreach. The Self-Sufficiency area supports personal growth and family stability through education, essential services and economic success programs. It offers ESL in conjunction with Napa Valley Adult Education. The Basic Computer Skills workshops teach adults in a slow-paced, culturally sensitive environment. Plaza Comunitaria is a self-paced, adult education program for life and work skills taught in Spanish while building the foundation to learn English. The program assists adult students with an opportunity to take literacy courses and to start or continue their elementary, middle and high school education.
 
Middle School Connections, for parents of at-risk middle school students, aids them in navigating their children’s critical adolescent years and guiding their children to make healthy and informed choices for the future. The workshop focuses on adolescent development, parenting strategies, techniques to support academic achievement and activities to learn basic computer skills. The parents are able to access online ESL programs and community resources in addition to helping their children succeed in school once they achieve their own skills.
 
In 2013, Puertas Abiertas prepared and filed 110 tax returns for community members through its tax clinic. The VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance) program provides free tax preparation to low-income families (of any ethnicity). The certified VITA volunteers help families claim all credits and deductions they qualify for, including the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), and help individuals complete the return and e-file directly with the IRS.
 
Bank on Napa Valley (BoNV), a collaborative project with other family resource centers and financial institutions in Napa County, is a financial and economic initiative to connect working families to basic bank accounts and financial services. “Many low-income families often cash their paychecks at a check-cashing store, where they’re charged 2.5 to 10 percent in fees,” says Brito. “With this program, they can open a bank account that has no or low fees. It’s a safe environment where their money is secure and they have an opportunity to save for their future. Some participating banks will accept Matricula Consular Cards (MCAS) and Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers as ID,” she added. (MCAS is an identification card issued by the Government of Mexico through its consulate offices to Mexican nationals residing outside of Mexico; it has no bearing on immigration status.)
 
On its website, BoNV states: “At least 10,000 households—as many as one quarter of Napa families—are considered unbanked or underbanked. These families and individuals must rely on check cashing services or money orders, which often come with predatory pricing. Because they’re not using conventional bank accounts, many families can’t build credit histories that would help them access mainstream financial services ranging from credit cards to lending.”
 
Puertas Abiertas provides guided referrals and access to health care and social service providers through its Healthy Living program, which connects clients to local nonprofit and government organizations that provide social, medical, dental and mental health services. It provides onsite services including MediCal application assistance; Platicas Informativas (“Informative Conversations”); Zumba Suavecito (an exercise group for women 45 and older); a mobile dental clinic for children, sponsored by the Queen of the Valley Medical Center and Community Outreach; and a senior support group offering education, cultural and fun activities during the summer.
 
Community engagement programs and workshops are available to educate and encourage Napa County residents to become active citizens in the community. Citizen Legal Services (CLS): Helping Immigrants Become Citizens are workshops that provide low-cost legal assistance by immigration attorneys, in English and Spanish, to help lawful, permanent residents become U.S. citizens. Seniors older than 60 receive free individualized assistance.
 
“We’re always looking out for community needs. First, we see if those have already been addressed by other agencies to avoid duplicating services, but we will expand available services as needed,” says Brito. “Sometimes, joining a larger effort through collaborations lets us reach out to more people, because we can increase the capacity to offer that service. The citizenship program is a good example.”
 
 
 

Engaged citizens

 
The One Napa Valley Initiative is a three-year, collaborative project, with more than $1 million in funding provided by Napa Valley Community Foundation, between Puertas Abiertas, the International Institute of the Bay Area (IIBA), Legal Aid of Napa Valley and On the Move (a nonprofit focused ondeveloping young people as leaders by building exceptional community programs that challenge inequities in their communities). The mission is to empower immigrants to feel more secure and engaged in the future of the community and to support legal, permanent Napa County residents who wish to become U.S. citizens. Citizenship is correlated with higher family income, higher educational attainment for the children of naturalized immigrants, higher proficiency in English and more active engagement in community affairs. In Napa County, 9,000 legal, permanent residents are eligible to become citizens.
 
“We’re proud to be part of the One Napa Valley Initiative. Our clients are hard-working immigrant families who want brighter futures for their children. They have a keen interest in becoming fuller participants in the economic and civic life of this community, and we look forward to helping them,” says Brito.
 
Mi Vida Civica is a program offered to increase voter registration, provide voter education and encourage voter participation. Many Latino immigrants have become citizens but don’t exercise their fundamental right to vote.
 
Through its Immigration Initiative, Puertas Abiertas keeps the community informed on important issues related to the Immigration Reform Bill. Legal Aid of Napa currently provides a pro bono immigration attorney and private consultation every other month. Puertas Abiertas provides a Mobile Passport Clinic and assists the Mexican Consulate in San Francisco to come to Napa to issue passports and MCAS cards. In 2013, it issued more than 500 documents in one day.
 
Latino Outreach, another initiative, includes promoting Latino cultural activities throughout the year, such as the Latino Heritage Month. It partners with other local agencies to reach the Latino community through different channels, including mass announcements, presentations, participation at community events and a radio show that airs on KVON 1440 AM the second Sunday of each month at 8:15 a.m.
 
 
 

Keeping the doors open

 
Puertas Abiertas receives about 60 percent of its funding through annual grants and government sources, with the balance coming from corporate and individual donations. Some funders include PG&E, Silverado Farming, Napa Valley Community Foundation, Napa County Grant and Napa Valley Vintners (via Auction Napa Valley).
 
“The primary reason the Napa Valley Community Foundation invests in Puertas Abiertas is that it’s relevant, smart and nimble. It knows how to connect its clients to other providers, when that makes sense, and it knows how to develop new programs if gaps exist. Its leadership is deeply committed to serving the growing Latino population of Napa Valley. We’re proud to be one of its long-time funders,” says Mulligan.
 
“Many people are unaware that our programs are open to anyone—regardless of race, ethnicity, language or creed. Our goal is to empower families to make positive changes in their behaviors by accessing health and social services, improving education skills, becoming more engaged in the community and achieving self-sufficiency. To reach these goals, we adapt and realign services with partners—in public, private and nonprofit sectors—to meet the most pressing needs of the underserved in our county,” adds Brito.
 
The organization needs people with expertise to volunteer support for programs and donate office supplies, gift cards or certificates for fund-raising purposes, as well as in-kind donations and cash donations. “Community members assist us in developing and producing fund-raising initiatives,” says Brito. “For example, Dave Phinney, owner of Orin Swift Cellars in St. Helena, produces Veladora Sauvignon Blancwith the profit proceeds donated to our organization.”
 
In describing the needs for the community in the future, board member Peatman remarks, “I think there are three things that community leaders at-large could do to help support the Latino community. First, focus on becoming engaged and opening conversations with the Latino population. I think fostering ways to encourage leadership within the community is another important part of what should be done in the future. And I think anything we can do to make the process of becoming a citizen more accessible would help relieve many problems. Our vision statement says: ‘The Napa Valley community is a rich tapestry of traditions and cultures living in harmony with opportunity and respect for all.’ We can only benefit in the future by working, conversing and living together in harmony.”
 
“We’re really fortunate to do this work in a community like ours,” says Brito. “The Nonprofit of the Year award inspires our dedicated team to continue working toward a healthier, stronger and more engaged community. For everyone who’s believed, encouraged, donated, volunteered and supported our mission: our most sincere thank you!”


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