United Way reaches out to Texas Latinos

United Way reaches out to Central Texas Latinos
Vivir Unidos event gave Hispanic residents and local nonprofits a chance to get to know each other.
By Juan Castillo, AMERICAN-STATESMAN, June 19, 2009

When the United Way Capital Area officials noticed that the Hispanic population in Central Texas was ballooning but volunteerism among Latinos seemed to lag behind, they wondered why.

Among the answers they got: Hispanics said they simply hadn't been asked.

On Thursday evening, the agency made a splashy point of asking, reaching out to Latino residents with a first-ever volunteer fair called Vivir Unidos at the Mexican American Cultural Center.

"This is kind of like our public appearance, our public invitation," said Armando Rayo, the director of Hands On Central Texas, a project of United Way's volunteer center.

The United Way envisioned Vivir Unidos — Spanish for "Live United" — as something of a mixer, a chance for Hispanic residents and local nonprofit organizations to get to know each other. More than 30 nonprofits were invited to the free event, which also marked the public rollout of a soon-to-be-released report by the agency on Hispanics, volunteerism and issues important to the Latino community.

The report and the fair grew out of United Way's Culture Connections and Community Engagement Initiative, an attempt launched in 2007 to draw more African Americans and Latinos into volunteerism. With Central Texas' population rapidly becoming more diverse, the agency thought it was important for nonprofit groups and their boards to reflect that mix.

"We need to have all voices represented in our nonprofit world," said Debbie Bresette, United Way interim president.

The initiative was quickly illuminating. The agency learned that African Americans were already heavily involved in their churches and in the schools and that the agency is "just not necessarily linked with it," Bresette said.

"We're not embedded or deeply rooted in the Hispanic community," Rayo said.

Vivir Unidos was a bilingual event. To connect with Latinos who are interested in volunteering, Rayo said, Vivir Unidos aimed to celebrate the diversity of Latino culture with Latin American foods, music, ballet folklórico and Vivir Unidos Lotería, a variation on the game sometimes called "Mexican Bingo."

Rayo said he hoped to bring native Tejanos, immigrants, young people and longtime residents under one tent.

"It's about being authentic in your approaches," Rayo said about the cultural touches. "It's about creating a sense of community, even if you may not have those existing relationships."

Idalia Garza of Round Rock is one of many volunteers who helped put on Vivir Unidos; she enlisted three local restaurants to donate food for the event.

"The main goal is for every single person to say, 'I didn't know I could be involved this way in our community,' " Garza said, adding that she didn't know either until she lost her job in October.

Through Hands On Central Texas, she connected with local hospices and another group that helps people with diabetes and dove into volunteering. Now she is the volunteer coordinator with Heart to Heart Hospice.

The work is close to her own heart; she said her brother David Castro died in 2003 of AIDS and lived in a hospice before his death.

Garza said she told Rayo she wants to continue helping.

"He has a powerful engine there" in Hands On Central Texas, Garza said. "I think we have the perfect market because we have a great diversity of people here and so many people willing to help. We have yet to reach the Hispanic community."

jcastillo@statesman.com; 445-3635

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