HIGHWOOD / HIGHLAND PARK – A few years ago, a group of Latino mothers decided that they wanted to learn how to decorate cakes, so Nuestro Center arranged to have someone from the bakery department at Sunset Foods in Highland Park teach cake decorating classes. Two of the mothers did so well that upon completion they were both hired as cake decorators: one at Sunset Foods and the other at Bent Fork Bakery in Highwood.
This is one of many life-changing stories thanks to the efforts of Nuestro Center.
Family Service of Lake County opened Nuestro Center in January 1997, as the first Latino family resource center in the region, and 20 years later they are the only place in this region that has the comprehensive holistic services in all areas for families.
“A lot of people don’t realize there are over 5,200 Latino immigrants in Highland Park and Highwood,” said Gail Hodges, development director. “Moraine Township has the highest percentage of first generation immigrants.”
Hodges added that Moraine Township is one of its funders, and churches have supported Nuestro Center since it began in North Shore Estates Apartments on Sheridan Road.
In May, Nuestro Center recently moved from 742 Sheridan Road to a larger location at 501 Bank Lane in Highwood.
The building was formerly a plumbing supply business.
“We had a pro bono architect help us plan out the space and the landlord took care of the renovations before we started,” said Carrie Callas, executive director. “This gives us 40 percent more space, and even more if you include the basement.”
Though the space is bright and airy with a shiny new open kitchen, Callas said the center still has to purchase equipment, furniture and replace their six-year-old computers. “Down the road we would love to renovate the lower level, because right now it’s unfinished. For now, we’re going to be using the first floor,” she added.
Hodges explained that the programs offered last year touched 1,800 people in some way. The programs include: After School Homework Club, Nuestro Verano Summer Camp for children, Senior programs, and Health-and-wellness educational programs.
Hodges said the health-and-wellness programs offer special lectures on topics like diabetes (which is rather prevalent in the Latino population), healthy cooking classes, and speakers from legal services.
During the school year, tutoring and homework assistance is provided by the Homework Club for first through fifth graders from Oak Terrace School.
“On Fridays, we have a fun day and don’t focus too much on homework,” said Lu Rocha, director of Latino and Youth Programs. “We try to do a learning activity that’s fun in art or science.”
Callas added that Northern Illinois Food Bank provides daily after school snacks for the Homework Club.
Students from Highland Park High School, Lake Forest College, Lake Forest Academy and volunteers of all ages help out with the Homework Club.
Children whose families could not afford high day camp rates, have the opportunity to attend Nuestro Verano Summer Camp at Oak Terrace School.
The five-week program costs about $25 per student for the five-week program which includes: T-shirts, field trips, lunches, and activities. The program accommodates 60 kids and 15 were on the waiting list.
“The volunteers are high school students who want to do something for the Latino community,” said Rocha. “They’re learning about the Latino culture and at the same time being mentors to the kids. It’s a win-win for everyone involved.”
Nuestro Center offers activities and classes for monolingual Spanish speaking senior citizens.
“Catholic Charities provides lunch, and I do stretching exercises like chair yoga with them,” said Rocha. “It’s the only place in the area that they can come to socialize. Some walk, carpool or take trains and buses to get here.”
Hodges emphasized that Nuestro Center makes sure that families are connected with a primary care physician, so that they have health services at NorthShore Highland Park Hospital.
Rocha added that the staff is trying to get community organizations to come to the new location for presentations, so that the community will see they have a connection with Nuestro Center. “This will help them feel more comfortable going to a doctor, organization or clinic,” she said.
Additionally, Nuestro Center will help parents advocate for their children at school.
For those who need counseling services, Callas said the clinical staff at Family Service of Lake County is located at 777 Central Avenue in Highland Park and they provide counseling there. Sometimes bilingual therapists have come directly to Nuestro Center.
“People come to Nuestro Center, because they know if we can’t help them, we can connect them to someone who can,” said Rocha. “We’ve moved to a more centralized area and have the potential of reaching more members of the community, and getting more volunteers.”
For more information visit: https://www.famservice.org/