(Exterior of farm, Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Photo by: MyLoupe/UIG via Getty Images)

In Pennsylvania Dutch country, non-profit serves sizable Latino community

When most people think of rural Pennsylvania, the first thing that probably comes to mind is the Pennsylvania Dutch and ‘Amish country.’  Yet the city of Lancaster is the home to a large and diverse group of Latinos. In fact, 40 percent of its 60,000 residents are Hispanic.

“In the late 60s and 70s, there was an influx of immigrants who came into the area as agricultural workers,” said Carlos Graupera, founder and CEO of the Spanish American Civic Association, known as SACA, a nonprofit dedicated to serving Lancaster’s diverse Hispanic population.

The majority of immigrants who initially moved to the city were Puerto Rican. A strong influx of Columbians and Dominicans followed soon after. Then in the early 80s, a few thousand Cuban refugees made Lancaster their home. Even now, many Cubans continue to immigrate.  Graupera says there is also a very strong Central American and Mexican presence at the moment.

“As the number of Latinos grew initially, “there was a level of disorganization,” he explained.  As a young man fresh out of college, Graupera began working with advocates to organize and provide services to the community.  Though he did not foresee it at the time, he is still there 40 years later, leading the organization.

This year, SACA received the Justice Grant from the Opportunity Finance Network for its 40 years of service.

According to Graupera, every decade saw the Latino population grow by 85 percent until it began leveling off at 75 percent in recent years.  The city has seen tremendous growth in the last few decades. Not only have Latinos fueled the hospitality, manufacturing, and agriculture industries, many Latino-owned businesses are thriving.  Graupera said that Lancaster has a very strong entrepreneurial spirit.

“That has created a sense of respect for the Latino community,” he explained. “It wasn’t there in the beginning, but had to be developed with time.”

Although many Latinos in the community are succeeding, 60 percent of Latino families are at or below the poverty level, he said.

Latinos also have the highest high school drop out rates and almost 20 percent are unemployed. “All of these social issues have worried us for decades,” Graupera said.

“We’ve been adding to the commonwealth in very significant ways. I don’t think it’s a fair trade off.  There isn’t a transfer in terms of housing, mobility, and health benefits.”

SACA offers assistance to many members of the community. The human services and education programs include a longstanding senior center that serves 6,000 meals a month.  It runs a 26-bed alcohol-and-drug facility that is the first in-patient center for Latino men in Pennsylvania. It has outreach treatment for HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted illnesses, a workforce development program that includes a new state-of-the-art center for vocational-technical training and a neighborhood charter school – the first in the city.

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The non-profit’s neighborhood revitalization programs have also rejuvenated previously blighted streets through code enforcement and community policing. SACA also maintains an affordable rental apartment program and has built 40 new owner-occupied townhouses over the past three years alone, several of which were sold to Lancaster public school teachers.

In short, SACA has turned the inner city into an emerging community of immigrants, according to Graupera.

In addition to providing social services, the Spanish American Civic Association also runs a widely followed 24-hour radio station with programming that serves its Latino audience with public affairs, news, and entertainment, and a recent companion project which provides public-access TV programming. They are also currently developing a technology center.

These media resources, Graupera explained, have added to the quality of life for many in the community.

Mark Pinsky, president and CEO of Opportunity Finance Network (OFN), explained why SACA will be awarded the Justice Award. “These are the stories of the great achievements and great heroism that people don’t get to hear about,” said Pinsky.

The aim of the Opportunity Finance Network is to build neighborhood prosperity through community development financial institutions (CDFIs) that deliver loans to low-wealth and low- income communities.

OFN makes its Justice Grant annually to an organization whose mission supports economic, political or social justice in the U.S.  On Thursday, October 17, during OFN’s annual Conference in Philadelphia, Graupera will receive the award for SACA.

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Daniel Betancourt, president of the Lancaster-based CDFI Community First Fund, which nominated SACA for this year’s Justice Grant, said SACA’s founder and CEO, Carlos Graupera, deserves special recognition for his management of the association and his ability to create consensus and collaboration across cultures.  Pinsky agreed.

“We learned that we can be little tug boats to steer bigger sources of capital into the community,” Pinsky said. “We try to stand with them and work with them to maximize their potential for success”

SACA currently has 150 people working every day to ensure the well-being of Lancaster residents. “We believe in social and economic exchange,” Graupera says. “You can have all kinds of fancy studies, but sometimes you just have to look at the attitude and spirit of the people in the community.”

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