Nestled on a dirt road off Military Trail in Lake Worth is a two-room community center where the neighborhood children, most of whom are Spanish-speaking, get help with their homework and learn art, dance and theater.
In March, their parents and other adults began to learn computer skills and English at a police substation on the same road.
The pilot project, called Community Integration and Empowerment, is run by the Latin American Immigrant & Refugee Organization, Inc., out of West Palm Beach.
Founded in 1989 by Executive Director Clemencia Ortiz and a partner, LAIRO is a nonprofit bilingual organization designed to help immigrants.
Ortiz’s partner left the organization, but LAIRO, with an annual budget of about $ 150,000, continues to offer services to immigrants from 19 Latin American countries.
LAIRO serves 100 to 150 people a month through a broad range of programs, Ortiz said, including parenting skills classes and mental health counseling for people with AIDS.
For the Lake Worth neighborhood program, LAIRO staff relied on neighbors to choose the programs.
”The residents formed a committee and gave us ideas,” Ortiz said.
The program kicked off with a Halloween party, and a Christmas play. Field trips and art classes followed. The other classes began in March.
”They asked for these activities,” said program coordinator Paz Olmos. ”We propose, but they have the final decision.”
Sylvia Soliz said she sends her four children to the center to get them away from the television set, and so they will learn about their Hispanic heritage.
Soliz said LAIRO’s involvement in the community sets an example for her children. ”It teaches them there’s someone out there, other than family that’s willing to do something to help them,” Soliz said. ”It’s something you don’t expect from people.”
Art teacher Javier del Sol said one of the program’s strengths is the bonds it creates among residents.
”The neighborhood is here, the kids are here,” del Sol said. ”It’s everything I’ve been preaching for years. It’s a comprehensive grassroots program.”
Each day, more than 20 children stop by the center. The children may not know about LAIRO, but their parents may have used the organization’s other services.
The organization’s philosophy is to work with the family, Ortiz said.
”There is a need even for well-educated parents to get help on how to best raise their children,” Ortiz said. ”You can imagine how it is with uneducated parents. You add the fact that they are living in a different culture where rules have changed and they’re not sure what they should do.”