A new executive director, two new young and enthusiastic board leaders and a smashing sell-out, annual fundraiser that raised $600,000. Sonoma’s family services and community engagement nonprofit La Luz Center is on a roll.
New ED Leonardo Lobato happily attended his first La Luz Noche party prior to his official Aug. 23 start date.
“I felt the warmth, friendliness and welcoming of Sonoma,” Lobato told the Index-Tribune. “Support and participation are instrumental for La Luz in delivering its programs and services to the Latinx community.”
The “Summer of Love” themed event attended by 350 guests was held at the Sparc cannabis farm on Trinity Road.
In interviews prior to the event, new board president Nick Mendelson-Ontiveros and new board vice president Jose Alvarez spoke passionately about key La Luz initiatives made possible by the annual Noche event.
La Luz programs and initiatives
The center’s Latino Leadership program brought in both Alvarez and Mendelson in 2017.
“I got to meet a lot of great people with incredible potential who are eager to make an impact in our communities,” said Alvarez. The program has since been credited with placing about a dozen Latino leaders onto either a committee or a board position at La Luz.
The center’s microloan program has already made 35 microloans totaling more than $800,000 supporting 29 businesses ranging from auto shops, restaurants/food service, contracting and building to landscaping and domestic services creating over 150 jobs.
“There are so much people here who want to follow their dreams and start a business, but they don’t have the resources or the credit or the knowledge to create a business plan,” said Alvarez. “La Luz can help them get to their end goal.”
“I’ve seen firsthand how capital can create change, as well as coaching and mentorship,” added Mendelson.
Mendelson is a passionate supporter of the center’s English language (ESL) classes. “With better fluency, you can go from back a house up the road at a restaurant in front of house where you make a little bit more money,” he said. “You can communicate with the next generation.”
Alvarez’s own life was changed by La Luz’s citizenship legal advice. During the early years of La Luz, his father began traveling back and forth from Mexico to Sonoma to work the harvest and La Luz volunteers helped him to submit paperwork so that the family could live legally in the U.S.
Alvarez also sees the power of financial literacy.
“One of the things I see on a regular basis is the need for financial literacy within our community so work La Luz does in that area is very near and dear to my heart,” he said. “It fills me with joy when I see people going from having no credit or bad credit to being able to afford a home.”
Even a short-term annual program like the center’s tax prep clinic can yield what results, says Mendelson. In 2021, the center helped 89 people file returns and get refunds, with an average adjusted gross income of $28,000, according to Mendelson.
“What we want to start creating for our clients is the opening up of a pathway to the middle-class,” said Mendelson.
To that end, Alvarez also cited the value of the construction trade classes offered at La Luz.
“All of tour programs are important because in combination they can make (upward mobility) possible,” said Mendelson.
Looking back and forward
“We’re trying to figure out what does our community really need,” said Mendelson. “What do the demographics really look like here and how can we better serve our clients every single year?”
Lobato expressed excitement for the center’s “holistic” approach to meeting the range of needs of the Latinx community.
The right approach isn’t about one specific service, he said, “but support in various areas. That holistic approach — that’s how I like to solve issues, looking at all angles and finding solutions.”
Lobato will spend his first few months working with Mendelson and Alvarez to evaluate La Luz’s programs and assess how well each matches the needs of the community.
“We’re not the same organization that we were when La Luz was founded,” Mendelson said. All three men expressed optimism about the future and a sense of pride in being an integral part of the center’s future.
“La Luz celebrated 35 years last years and we want to be part of the next 35 years,” said Mendelson. “That would be an honor,” added Alvarez.
With additional reporting by Jason Walsh. Contact Lorna at firstname.lastname@example.org.