Centro Hispano Moves Forward with a New
Center for Community Life
|Gloria Reyes (l-r), Centro Hispano’s board chair and
Karen Menendez Coller, Centro Hispano’s executive
director, are leading the agency into a new era.
Madison, it was a different place than it is now.
“When Centro first started, it was able to serve the families that were here,” Reyes said. “It was doable. We had a small number of
families here. And everyone was closer. Everyone knew each other and their families and the kids. It was really neat that way. And then
as the years went on and more families came, Centro slowly began to try to fill the needs of the community. It has changed dramatically for
the better, right? We used to have to go to Chicago to the Mexican store to get tortillas. There was nothing here. But now you can walk
down the street and pick something up. You can go to a Mexican restaurant. We have a thriving community. And I love to see the Latino
Professionals Association filled with professionals who are willing to help each other out. I just had a sit down with a Latino Chamber of
Commerce board member who was telling me all of the great things going on and the branding and how to be a leader. And I was thinking,
‘That’s exactly what we need.’ There are a lot of great things happening here in Madison.”
But along with that growth, Coller has heard from the families and youth whom she talks to has come isolation for a lot of families.
“There are some families that have been here for longer periods of time,” Coller said. “And it seems like they have some stability in
employment and they have networks of support. But then there are those other families that have spoken about how they are still in that
critical period of working at a factory that doesn’t treat them very well, working at a hotel that doesn’t treat them very well, trying to juggle
two jobs. When we do the scholarship interviews for the kids here at Centro, Gloria will tell you that the kids share stories that let you
know they are really adults in their families. And they have so many responsibilities. I want to have a place here at Centro where they can
come here when they may be in crisis, but also in between to get the support that they need. They don’t need to just come when they need
something. They could just come to chat with Jacqueline, chat with our staff, get involved in our youth programs because they want to
keep that continuity of support. I think that is really important to stabilize the homes.”
Several years back, Centro Hispano seemed to be moving in the direction of specializing only in youth development programming. But
Coller and Reyes feel that is an incomplete approach to truly serving those children.
“The youth are the core of our services,” Coller said. “How can we nurture them? I think it is silly to think that you can just nurture them a
certain way without involving the families, the community, the schools and the neighborhood. It has to be a holistic approach. I think at the
core, our mission is still the same. But we are just trying to be more inclusive and integrated in different aspects of the youth’s life. The
parents are still overwhelmed. They don’t know how to communicate with their youth. The community is still not providing the aspirations
that they need. There aren’t any jobs for the family. There are no career trajectories. The youth go to a great program, but are they really
going to change?”
As Centro Hispano seeks to become this center for Latino children and families, Coller and Reyes felt it was necessary to rebuild Centro
from the inside out and to heal some old wounds.
“We’ve been working very hard and we want to take it in stages,” Coller said. “How can we promote leaders within our staff and within
our agency governance? We’re focusing on programs, which is my interest. And it falls in line with what we’ve been talking about. How
can we create an agency that focuses on the core of youth, but also addressing all of the needs of youth: the home, the school and the
Historically, a large gulf has existed between Centro’s board and its staff. Reyes and Coller have been working hard to have all parties
work as a team.
“Karen has been able to build the relationship between our staff and board and make sure that the board isn’t just out there,” Reyes said.
“It’s really developing as much contact as we can between the board and the staff. We’ve had staff-board retreats. We’ve had a board
member come to our staff meetings to talk about what they do. We don’t want to be up here in a bubble somewhere. I think that is important
for our leadership and our staff to see that as we try to move forward.”
Through this focus on the whole family in a holistic way, Reyes and Coller hope to assist Centro to once again become a vital force in the
“This is a very important agency,” Coller said. “In Madison and Dane County, it is the one agency with the history that it has and the
mission. Most of the Latino leaders who are out there and whom I have talked with, at one point, they were here. I think there is a need to
respect this place for what that means. How can we continue to empower and grow and develop in the right way new leaders? I think
everyone is excited.”
Armed with a new strategic plan and egoless leaders, Centro Hispano is poised to once again become a vital force in the development of
Latino children and families.
By Jonathan Gramling
Go to just about any city in Latin American country and you will find a plaza, a
town square or center where entertainment happens, where people gather
and talk as they buy the day’s groceries or purchase clothing and jewelry.
One of the murals at Centro Hispano makes it look as if one is sitting in a
plaza. And the leadership of Centro Hispano would like Centro to be a center
of community life.
“Teresa Tellez-Giron would tell me that one thing that she liked when Ilda
Thomas, the first Centro director, was here, people would come in and have a
cup of coffee and sit down,” said Karen Menendez Coller, Centro’s current
executive director said. “We want to have that aspect to it. It’s the center
where things happen. You can just come here and hang out and we’ll take
care of you. When I go out there, I really talk about our board and how strong
our staff is and how we just want people to come here and think of it as a
home because we are all trying to create that environment.”
Back when Gloria Reyes, Centro’s board president, was growing up in