Congreso de Latinos Unidos, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing services to the local community, is celebrating its 35th anniversary. Described by Cynthia Figueroa, the president and CEO, as a multiservice organization with Latino expertise, Congreso provides direct services to over 15,000 members of the community each year.
In Congreso’s 35-year history, it has developed a multiservice holistic approach. There are 51 unique programs offered through the organization. In order to better offer these services, Congreso needed a way to group all of the services together.
Figueroa said, “We focus in four distinct service areas: education, employment, health and social services.”
Figueroa said Congreso can provide a necessary service for an individual, but if in the end the client needs more than one service, the organization able to connect him or her to other services.
Congreso’s mission is to strengthen Latino communities by giving community members the opportunities to move up the socio-economic ladder.
Figueroa said her hope is that one day Congreso will help to end poverty.
Some of the major highlights of Congreso’s history include increased individual impact, the creation of a federally qualified health center and increased bilingual domestic violence support. When Figueroa started with Congreso, she worked with domestic violence cases. That service area is the one she is most proud of.
Also included in the organization’s history was the opening of a kindergarten through eighth grade charter school, Pan American Academy Charter School. Figueroa said Congreso’s commitment to education and the need for this resource inspired its creation.
“Where I feel we’ve been most successful in 35 years is responding to really significant issues that have arised in the community and then created programming that’s sustaining and still in place today,” Figueroa said.
On March 17, Congreso will be hosting its Sixth Annual Gala Latina. The gala will celebrate the organization’s 35th anniversary.
Every year, the gala has a different theme but is based on a country in Central or South America. This year’s theme is Viejo San Juan, Puerto Rico. The gala will incorporate music, food, culture and flavor of Viejo San Juan.
The gala is not just a fundraiser for Congreso but also an opportunity for community members to gather and see the variety of cultures that make up the Latino community in Philadelphia.
Congreso attempts to not only provide basic support for the Latino community in Philadelphia but also to remove barriers that prohibit the community from moving forward. Figueroa said that the geographic region that Congreso serves is one of the poorest districts. Congreso tries to improve this barrier one family at a time.
A large concentration of the clients are from the area around Congreso’s physical location at American and Somerset streets. However, Congreso has clients from all over the city.
“We have folks on our staff who were clients of the organization years ago and have a tremendous loyalty and support,” Figueroa said.
Not all of the people that receive direct services are Latino. Figueroa estimated 78 percent of the 15,000 people are Latino.
Figueroa said, “I think the biggest challenge is how great the barriers are for the individuals in the community.”
Another challenge that she noted was funding.
“We have a diverse pool of funding but it is a challenge and it continues to be a growing challenge,” Figueroa said.
The funding for Congreso comes from a variety of sources, including the public sector, foundation support and the corporate community. The benefit to offering so many services is budget cuts, like the ones that occurred last year, can be spread throughout many services, so they do not need to severely cut one area specifically.
Figueroa said there were some cuts in youth services but Congreso received a grant that will allow them to bring back these services. Congreso also aggressively fundraises to avoid budget cut impacts.
Michael Martinez, an active community member, said the education and health services that the organization can provide are very useful to the community.
“They do all they can for the community. I’ve never seen anybody leave here dissatisfied,” he said.
The community’s reactions to Congreso have built up its reputation as a reliable source of assistance to those in need.
Martinez has never reached out to Congreso for services before, but he is now turning to the organization for help paying his monthly utility bills.
Figueroa said that the utility assistance program that Congreso offers is one of the programs with the most need. Funding for the program is used up quickly.
Sonia Collazo, a member of Voluntarios en Accion, or Volunteers in Action, said, “When I worked for the city, I used to refer people to Congreso all the time and they always received the benefits.”
Nury Padua, also a member of Volunteers in Action, said, “We help Congreso with their events and activities. Plus we work in the community.”
Volunteers in Action helps Congreso determine the needs of the community. This way, the necessary programs are being created in the future.
In September, the Pan American Academy Charter School as well as Harcum College at Congreso will move to a new building across the street from Congreso’s main location on the 200-block of West Somerset Street. The new building is currently under construction. Because the charter school now only offers kindergarten to eighth grade, Congreso recognizes the need for expansion into ninth through 12th grades. Congreso also hopes to expand the health center.
When Collazo was asked what she thought Congreso’s greatest highlight was in the last 35 years, she said, “The very fact that they are here in the heart of the community. It gives people easy access to the services.”