A young Guatemalan woman entered a court pretrial diversion program after her 6-year-old son, Jonathan, was thought to be abandoned while she was inside a store. She did not speak English—her native tongue is one of the over 20 Mayan-influenced languages spoken in Guatemala.

When the court gave her the requirement of 20 community service hours, her attorney came to Esperanza Latino Center, which opened in January at 234 Pike St. in Covington. Leo Calderon, chair of Esperanza’s board of directors, accompanied her to the next meeting with her diversion officer to explain the compounded communication barrier she was facing.

After she fulfilled her service obligation, she had found in Esperanza a place where she could learn, help and be helped. She and Jonathan have been coming to the center ever since.

This highlights a portion of why Calderon and Esperanza’s executive director, Irene Encarnacion, created a Latino-focused community center in Covington. With around 13,000 Latinos living in Northern Kentucky—including 500 students enrolled at Northern Kentucky University, where Calderon and Encarnacion are both faculty—and well over 90% of them coming from Guatemala, there are massive barriers to Latinos who want to work and live in the area. Language divides and the fear that they aren’t welcome in their communities make daily and mundane tasks that much more difficult.

Hence, Esperanza—meaning “hope” in Spanish—tries to provide as much education and guidance as its small, entirely volunteer staff can provide.

“We are basically like the welcome center where you come to ask questions,” says Encarnacion. “We try to direct you to where the resources are. We try not to reinvent things.”

At the center, Encarnacion and Calderon organize English language classes, civil rights education, legal assistance, financial advisement and access to the young childhood literacy program Read Ready Covington. Sometimes, Esperanza’s volunteers help people start from scratch, setting up an email account for them so that they can apply for jobs or helping them set up a bank account. For other Latino residents, the center can provide connections to career opportunities or community organizations to provide them a better sense of belonging.

Calderon, who is NKU’s director of Latino programs and services, and Encarnacion, who is a professor and senior lecturer with the university’s world languages and literatures department, had both thought about creating this center for some time. And they didn’t let any uncertainty stop them when they found the place where they could establish it.

“We threw ourselves in the water and then we went to find the lifejackets and the towels,” says Encarnacion with a laugh. Esperanza opened with $4,000 donated by four founding members—a shoestring budget that put pressure on the founders to make every dollar and effort count. “But that didn’t stop us. We had a location and we had the drive and the idea,” says Encarnacion.

Calderon adds that the center isn’t focused solely on one population in Northern Kentucky. Esperanza is meant to provide and build community awareness, connections and trust among all residents.

It’s educating the non-Latino community about the need to have a center like this,” Calderon explains, “and then educating the Latino community, in this case the recently arrived immigrant. It’s education, education and education.”

Esperanza opened in January and only had its first open house in May, but the community has responded with a generosity and acceptance that has exceeded Encarnacion and Calderon’s hopes.

First there was the need for basic furniture and materials. Josh Skipper of the Kentucky Baptist Connection provided chairs and tables for the center, NKU gave desks from its surplus property and the city of Covington helped Esperanza procure 10 computers.

Encarnacion and Calderon’s peers in the nonprofit sphere of Northern Kentucky pitched in, too. Sister Alice Gerdeman and the Sisters of Divine Providence provided their time, advice and a donation. Juan Peña from the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights hosted a workshop on July 9 that provided counseling and education on housing and employment rights. Matt and Rebekah Butler of The Devou Good Project paid the center’s first year of rent and offered to match community donations up to $25,000, a threshold that the online donations have almost reached already.

“The generosity of the community has been incredible,” says Calderon. After two weeks of operations, 30 local organizations had reached out to Calderon and Encarnacion about assisting or partnering with Esperanza. By the end of the center’s first month of being open, that number had climbed to 50.

“We haven’t had to go out to ask aggressively or fundraise aggressively,” adds Encarnacion. “It has been everybody coming or calling and saying, ‘We want to help you.’”

With the communities of Northern Kentucky embracing the Esperanza Latino Center so quickly, Encarnacion and Calderon can look to and plan for the future. After achieving 501(c)(3) status in early July, the nonprofit is looking to organize events to bring the Latino and non-Latino communities together in celebrations of Latino heritage. August 18 will feature a dual salsa competition at the Covington Farmer’s Market, where both the best spicy dipping sauces and dances will be judged. September 28 will be the first Latino picnic of what Esperanza hopes to be many, happening near the Behringer-Crawford Museum at Devou Park. And Calderon is eyeing spring of 2020 for a big fiesta to bring everyone together for a truly communal celebration.

The events reflect the joy Encarnacion—who calls Covington her “happy place”—and Calderon feel in building trust between Northern Kentuckians and their Latino neighbors. But they also know it will continue to be tough work. Their schedules only permit the center being open on Tuesday and Thursdays and they receive no pay from their work for Esperanza. But there is hope that they will hire a director in the coming months after achieving official nonprofit status and recent fundraising.

Above all, both Encarnacion and Calderon are focused on Esperanza’s mission—if there’s any way to help anyone in Northern Kentucky as a bilingual welcome and resource center, they will.

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