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Isabel Villar: From Cuba to the U.S. with just the clothes on her back

El Centro Hispano Isabel Villar
El Centro Hispano staff, from left, Jennifer Abrew, Claudia Malaga,
Isabel E. Villar, H. Judith Aucar, Daisy Flores, Gisselle Roble and
Chelsea Mosquera. Photo by Peter Katz

“We need for that business community that is out there to get to know us,” Isabel Villar, founding executive director of White Plains-based nonprofit El Centro Hispano, told the Business Journal.

That may sound surprising when considering that the organization was founded 45 years ago and has made no secret of the services it provides to Westchester’s Hispanic community from its base at Chapel Hall of The Church of St. Bernard at 346 S. Lexington Ave. in White Plains. Villar was concerned that some of what the organization offers does not always appear on the radar.

She said that after the organization was founded in 1974, “We began developing contacts with the business community in White Plains and Westchester County, local businesses. I went around and said, ‘We are here.’ ” Villar was inviting business owners to let her know if they had employment opportunities for El Centro’s clients. Those early efforts morphed into a regular employment listing service where local businesses are invited to advertise job openings. In 2018, El Centro made 4,404 job referrals of candidates for jobs in White Plains and nearby communities.

Matching members of the Hispanic community with employment opportunities is just one of the activities springing from El Centro’s mission of strengthening local Hispanic families through outreach, counseling, education and advocacy programs. In addition to employment, El Centro’s programs encompass health, housing, immigration matters, language and culture.

“When we opened 45 years ago, we did a needs assessment in the community,” Villar said. “At that time there were only 3,000 Hispanics in White Plains. The main needs were affordable housing and jobs. Entry-level jobs were very important and they still are.” The 2010 U.S. Census said the Hispanic population in White Plains stood at 17,000.

Villar is a political refugee who came to the U.S. from Cuba in 1966 and sought out an uncle who lived in White Plains.

“I came from Cuba with just the clothes on my back and quickly found that as an immigrant, unless you have an education in this country, it is very difficult to move forward. That’s the message that I am constantly telling our community.” People come to El Centro, in large part, “to be able to get the proper tools to be able to get a better job and to go on living in this country,” Villar said.

In 2018, El Centro served 5,159 individuals, 2,100 of them being new to the organization. It provided 5,570 housing referrals. Other assistance included translating and notarizing documents, assisting with job and school applications and putting clients in touch with lawyers, doctors and social service agencies.

“We have an immigration program here. We have an attorney who comes in Fridays to serve the people and the demand for that has increased because of everything that is happening,” Villar said. “People are concerned with how we are going to be able to resolve this immigration situation.”

Villar recalled that two years ago El Centro staged a community forum on immigration in the church’s gym that attracted 502 people. “The White Plains mayor was here, the police department was here and we had five different attorneys here giving information to the people. And to have all the people come down because everybody was concerned, and to be able to do it, is what El Centro Hispano is all about,” Villar said.

A major undertaking has been the English as a second language programs in conjunction with BOCES. “We have classes not only weekdays at night but Saturday night and Sunday morning,” Villar said.

She expressed pride in the technology center that has been in operation for 11 years. Beginning, intermediate and advanced courses are offered in computer hardware technology as well as specific software programs. “We have lots of testimonials from people who were working in a place and when they developed the computer skills were able to find better jobs,” she said.

In 1980, El Centro established a scholarship program that provides aid to high school graduates as well as students already in college. The 2019 awards were designated for 20 graduating high school students and 17 students already in college and totaled $52,000. The scholarship program has awarded $476,000 since its inception.

When asked for an example of what she thinks about most when reflecting on her years at El Centro Hispano, Villar provided an anecdote illustrating how things have come full circle for her.

“In 2008, we decided to build the technology center and we needed an architect,” she said. Someone remembered that the student who received El Centro’s first scholarship in 1980 went on to become an architect. He was approached and agreed to work on the project. “When it was time for his estimate, he looked at me and said, ‘How do you think I’m going to charge you when you were the first one to give me hope with the scholarship that I received from Centro Hispano?’ Those are the things that really make me think, not the trophies or awards you get,” Villar said.

On Oct. 26, El Centro Hispano will celebrate its 45th anniversary with a black-tie gala at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in White Plains. Sixteen individuals, businesses and organizations will be honored for their support of El Centro. For information, tickets or to become a sponsor, contact Claudia Malaga at 914-289-0500 or visit elcentrohispano.org.

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