Casa Central celebrates 60 years of service to Hispanic families

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Reading readiness: Children listen to a story at Casa Central, the social services agency that reaches about 20,000 individuals a year in Humboldt Park. | PHOTO COURTESY OF CASA CENTRAL

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Casa Central serves a special group in Chicago. The Humboldt Park-based community center is the largest Hispanic social services agency in the Midwest.

“We propel a diverse population of all ages toward self-sufficiency and a higher quality of life,” said Ann R. Alvarez, president and CEO of Casa Central. “Our mission is to transform lives and transform communities.”

Casa Central, located at 1343 N. California Ave., is celebrating its 60th year in service to the Hispanic Chicago population. The organization operated as a program of the Chicago Missionary Society for its first 10 years, and became a nonprofit agency in 1964. It’s been operating that way ever since.

Alvarez said a large part of its longevity if due to the leadership that’s been in place. Two executives have served since 1964: the Rev. Daniel Alvarez (her husband) from 1964-1989, and Alvarez herself from 1989 to now.

The organization serves as a one-stop-shop of sorts for all ages from early childhood to seniors with a variety of programming including childcare, job training and in-home care.

Since 1989, Casa Central has also operated the La Posada Interim Housing Program, which helps Hispanic or non-Hispanic homeless families.

“We have 23 independent apartments that are within a half-mile of each other; most in two main buildings,” Alvarez said. “This is transitional housing. We work with mom or dad to get them involved in vocational training, computer training, and with the kids for after-school programming.”

She added that this comprehensive approach is important for the community.

“Families need to become self-sufficient,” she said. “The more we can work with the whole family, the better results you see.”

Having many services within the same organization makes sense for cultural reasons, too. Casa Central operates with bicultural, offerings, Alvarez said, catering to many Spanish speakers.

“Historically, when you don’t speak the native language, [our services] bring tremendous reassurance to a family struggling in so many ways,” she said.

Most clients live in the Chicago area and the collar communities including suburbs such as Berwyn, Cicero and Melrose Park. Alvarez estimated that 20,000 community members are served annually — a figure that includes the 8,000 to 10,000 primary clients and the additional family members who participate.

Casa Central’s early childhood program began as a small group with 40 kids. “Now, we have an early learning program that serves 350 kids, which includes 60 school-age kids. The focus is family-friendly, we are in communication and also engaging the parents in learning, such as providing services, referring them for a training program, getting their GED or ESL (English as a Second Language) [certification].”

She said the continuity and consistency of staff is important to maintaining the same level of quality services. It also rolls over to the organization’s employees and volunteers.

“We attract quality people who are interested in developing professional careers in this kind of work, or serving [communities] as their primary focus.”

“It’s about the team that you have to work with. As we’ve expanded, if we didn’t have a strong team of leaders, it would not be possible to have that kind of success.”