The Latino Community Center of Pittsburgh moves into its new home in East Liberty

This story was originally posted by NEXTpittsburgh, a press partner of PublicSource. NEXT Pittsburgh is an online publication about the people driving the area forward and the innovative and cool things happening there. Register to get NEXTpittsburgh for free.

On a hot Saturday in July, Alison Zapata was up on a ladder painting a Mexican folk art mural inside the new Latino Community Center headquarters in East Liberty.

“The overall vision is for the space to be dynamic, uplifting, joyful and welcoming,” said the Aspinwall artist who chose bold shades of turquoise, magenta and mustard yellow for the design she created. for the community lobby and visitor center. new downtown home on the second floor of 5750 Baum Blvd.

“We wanted the place to have charm and make employees and customers feel good when they walk in,” said Zapata, 47, whose late grandfather came to Pittsburgh from Mexico when he was 13 years to lay railway sleepers.

“He didn’t speak English and there were hardly any Latinos in Pittsburgh at the time,” she said.

Latinos still make up only a fraction of local residents. About 9,000 Latinos live in the city of Pittsburgh, or 3% of the population, while about 24,000 Latinos reside in Allegheny County, or 2% of the population.

Launched in 2017, the association Latin Community Center provides assistance with legal referrals, health care, housing, education, and other social services. The intense demand for such assistance — especially during the pandemic — has spurred rapid growth for the nonprofit organization.

The organization worked with about 800 families in the fiscal year that ended June 30, up from 500 families the previous year, said Rosamaria Cristello, founder and executive director of the Latino Community Center and a native of Guatemala.

The staff has grown from five in 2018 to 35 full-time employees this year and its annual budget now totals around $2.5 million.

Volunteer Martha Cortes paints a room at the new Latino Community Center in East Liberty. (Photo by Dennis Roddy/NEXT Pittsburgh)

“Maybe more families reached out to us during the pandemic and our team did a lot more outreach,” including setting up vaccination clinics, helping families who needed computers so students could attending classes remotely and providing food and other donated supplies to those who have been laid off or furloughed, she said.

Its staff, Cristello said, “had the flexibility and ability to pivot and meet the needs of families in the moment.

This month, the center moves into its new home, which totals just under 10,000 square feet. At its former Downtown location, the nonprofit rented 1,500 square feet from Catholic Charities and had enough space for just five employees to work on site.

The Latino Community Center chose the East Liberty space after surveying and holding community meetings with families, employees and other stakeholders to get their input on a new location.

Volunteer Sara Kaufman (left) and artist Alison Zapata work on a mural that will welcome visitors to the Latino Community Center. (Photo by Dennis Roddy/NEXT Pittsburgh)

The majority wanted it in the South Hills, specifically at or near Beechview and Dormont, which have increasingly Latin American populations and a number of Latino-owned restaurants. Downtown was the second most popular choice, followed by the East End of the city. Most respondents wanted the location to have parking or good access to public transport.

Although Beechview-Dormont was a top choice, few buildings could provide enough space to accommodate existing programs and future growth, Cristello said, adding that downtown parking is a challenge for employees and families. .

East Liberty’s location “is ideal” due to nearby bus routes, on-street and car parks, space for all staff and activities, and the ability to expand , she said. And many Latino families live in the neighborhood.

Cristello was nine months pregnant and isolated at home with COVID-19 when her staff and families at the Latino Community Center visited the new site.

“I got text after text” urging him to make a deal for it, she said.

The volunteers spent several weekends painting and building furniture for the space before the move.

At the Latino Community Center Welcome Center, individuals and families will be greeted as soon as they step off the elevator by staff who will conduct intake interviews and make referrals to case managers, community health workers, educational staff or others for assistance.

Beyond the reception center is a large open space with exposed brick walls that can be used for meetings and ceremonies. There are two kitchens as well as smaller rooms and private offices for staff. A teen center will have a ping-pong table.

“It’s nice to see the place transformed – to take simple walls and make art to instill pride through our heritage and identity,” said Zapata, who works as a teaching artist and has collaborated on projects with the Latino Community Center since its founding.

Many Latino Community Center clients were laid off during the pandemic because they worked in hospitality or construction, but have since returned to work, said Cristina Ballarta Silva, the center’s senior case manager. But the challenges for these families remain.

Single working mothers are struggling to find reliable childcare as many centers have closed or lost staff during the pandemic. Many families face barriers to securing housing because they don’t yet have sufficient credit history, documentation, or income to satisfy landlords.

Mia Tamburri adds a few touches to one of the murals staff and volunteers painted at the Latino Community Center in East Liberty. (Photo by Dennis Roddy/NEXT Pittsburgh)

Silva said his team also continues to fight misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines — especially on social media — and is now focused on getting vaccines to young children who have recently become eligible for vaccines. While Pittsburgh Public Schools has done a good job of providing information to Latino families in Spanish, she said others in Allegheny County only communicate in English.

The Latino Community Center offers college preparation and mentoring for high school students at its headquarters and offers after-school programs for K-8 students in Pittsburgh Beechwood PreK-5, Pittsburgh Arsenal 6-8 and Pittsburgh South Hills 6-8. He plans to expand these programs to Moon and McKeesport school districts.

The Latino Community Center will host an open house for its partners and families in the new space on Saturday, August 27.

Joyce Gannon is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer.

Do you feel more informed?

Help us inform people in the Pittsburgh area with more stories like this – support our nonprofit newsroom with a donation.

Jill E. Washington