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Unity and university: IU provides roadmap for building Latino resource center in southern Indiana

Feb 21, 2024

Board members of the Asociación Latineamericana del Sur de Indiana, or ALASI, in Dubois County knew that Latino residents in southern Indiana faced several barriers in their daily lives. To help quantify those barriers and how best to address them, the board turned to Indiana University for help.

A ribbon cutting at the opening of ALASI Dubois County celebrates the opening of the ALASI Resource Center. Photo courtesy of the IU Center for Rural Engagement

ALASI board president Evelyn Rivas recounted her mother’s journey after fleeing war-torn El Salvador in 1987.

“She faced many challenges, one being the language barrier,” Rivas said. “But she was fueled with hope that the United States could offer her what her country had not been able to.”

Rivas said her mother worked two full-time jobs for several years, cared for their family and took English classes.

“Even then she struggled to understand the culture, the traditions and the systems of her new home,” Rivas said.

The county’s Latino community has been steadily growing for the past three decades. More than 9 percent of Dubois County residents identify as Latino, and in the Southwest Dubois County School Corp. in Huntingburg, 34 percent of students identify as Latino.

In addition to hosting programs and social events in the Dubois County area, ALASI fielded daily questions about community resources, immigration assistance, child care needs and health care navigation.

To name and quantify needs and barriers, ALASI turned to the Indiana University Center for Rural Engagement to conduct a needs assessment among Latino residents. The assessment identified the top-ranked needs as education, employment, child care, health, food and immigration support.

“It was a very important document,” ALASI board member Rossina Sandoval said. “We know there is a need, but for the first time, we could prove that there is a need.”

The ALASI board dreamed of a resource center where anyone could get support. ALASI again linked up with IU to make this vision a reality. Through the Center for Rural Engagement’s Sustaining Hoosier Communities program, adjunct instructor Trent Engbers and the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs’ Online Master of Public Affairs program were ready to develop a plan.

Students in the O’Neill Online Master of Public Affairs program come from around the world in late summer each year to participate in O’Neill Online Week in Indiana. Composed of working professionals, the O’Neill Online Week class unites decades of professional experience collectively.

Before arriving in Indiana, students learn more about their partnering organization and its project alongside the public affairs experts at O’Neill. When they arrive, students begin the week in the partnering community, meeting with organization representatives and local leaders. They return to the IU Bloomington campus to develop their proposal, which they present to the community partner at the end of the week.

Two IU employees staff a health fair Center for Rural Engagement healthy Hoosier communities liaison Mylan Gaston staffs a booth at the Hispanic Health Fair in Huntingburg. Photo courtesy of the IU Center for Rural Engagement

“They get to know the people beyond an academic issue and understand the issue through the eyes of the client,” Engbers said.

ALASI came to the O’Neill Online program with an overarching question: How can we better serve the growing Latino community in Dubois County? Before jumping into a resource center plan, the class quickly identified that there were two local Latino-serving entities: Latino-led ALASI and the Latino Collaboration Table, a consortium of corporate and governmental stakeholders. Inspired by this project and the recommendations of the class, the two organizations united under ALASI to bolster their strengths and better serve the community.

“The class, ALASI and the Latino Collaboration Table started to think about what a more unified Latino-serving organization looked like, and that gave them a real impetus that had lasting impact,” Engbers said.

The O’Neill class created a phased implementation plan for a brick-and-mortar resource center to ensure the community fully included Latino residents in local services, programs and opportunities. The first phase of the plan was focused on securing initial funding needed to fully open the center.

“In simplest terms, it really created a roadmap for us to coalesce around,” ALASI board member Christian Blome said. “We have all these passionate people and resources in Dubois County, and this gave our mission validity.”

The ALASI Resource Center opened its doors one year later on Sept. 15, 2023, with foundational support from German American Bank, OFS, Menke Foundation, Meyer Distributing/Meyer Logistics, Farbest Foods, Memorial Hospital, Kimball International, Old National Bank, Kimball Electronics Jasper and Springs Valley Bank & Trust; and through collaborations with the city of Jasper, city of Huntingburg and Southwest Dubois County School Corp. The board launched its search for the center’s inaugural executive director and appointed Joanna Howard to the role on Jan. 15.

“Today we achieved what other communities with more manpower and more resources have not been able to do,” Rivas said at the Sept. 15 ribbon-cutting ceremony. “Today we show unity in advancing equity in our community and advancing cultural competence. Today we demonstrate that the diversity we have in our community is not only enriching us, but it is making our community stronger and better.”

Located at 511 E. Fourth St. in Huntingburg, the center is focused on enhancing cultural competence by collaborating with community and service providers to facilitate access to health, housing and social services resources; promote education equity; and celebrate cultures.

ALASI continues to implement the plan the O’Neill Online class developed, looking ahead to adding a liaison staff role and establishing a sustained funding model for the future. The board is envisioning new opportunities for ALASI to connect the Latino community with recreational, arts and cultural programs — all with future IU partnerships in mind.

“This was hard work, but I can’t imagine where we would have been without the collaboration,” Blome said.

Author

IU Center for Rural Engagement

Kyla Cox Deckard

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