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Latinos and Evanston North Shore are building community in the midst of a pandemic

Even after midnight, after a long day of multiple jobs, Rosa Velázquez is still eager to meet her colleagues at Latinos and Evanston North Shore.

“I don’t feel tired. I feel like this is my third job, ”said Velázquez, the LENS program coordinator. “Come on, let’s get some coffee and you will wake up because we have a lot to do.”

The work of the organization occupies you and your fellow board members very much these days. The nonprofit nonprofit organization began providing programs and assistance to underserved Latin American residents in the northern suburbs of Chicago in 2016. LENS received its non-profit status at the beginning of the year. But since its inception, it has had one focus: serving the community.

“Part of our mission is to promote our culture; That’s why we celebrated Hispanic Heritage Month and Day of the Dead, ”said Mercedes Fernández, Co-Founder and President of LENS. “We also try to measure the temperature in our community. We have our ears on the ground and listen: “What do you need? What do you want?’ And we try to react accordingly. “

The organization is now leading a variety of initiatives such as: B. the implementation of courses for English learners and celebrations Latin traditions like Day of the Dead.

Fabiola Alfonso, vice president of LENS, said the pandemic inspired the organization to expand in both the physical and digital realms. LENS has expanded its services from setting up online donation pages to creating virtual programs, opening a checking account and providing COVID-19 funds to the community.

Velazquez said it was difficult not only to learn zoom but also to teach community members how to navigate the program. Even so, spreading knowledge has proven to be a worthwhile process, she said.

“We are proud that we finished, we helped the community grow up, grow up, not stop,” said Velázquez. “When you need another resource? Yes i can share Why not, right? Because the community needs service. “

One of the most popular of these services is the Spanish language book club. The LENS Readers Club started through Zoom and has two sections that meet weekly. LENS provides club members with free copies of the book and invites participants of all reading levels to participate.

Readers Club member Dolores Miranda said discovering a community of people who shared their culture helped her break through the isolation of the pandemic.

She highlighted the meaningful conversations she had had with other members of the club, sharing personal experiences and exploring topics related to the books, all of which were written in Spanish.

Everyone at the club respects each other’s opinions, Miranda said, and the members have shared personal stories that impressed them. She remembered a woman who remembered the first dress her mother had ever given her.

“She said they couldn’t afford a dress but somehow the mother actually made her a dress and she felt like she was the most beautiful girl ever because she wore this beautiful dress that her mother had put together for her “Said Miranda called. “If you just think about it, it just pulls you together a little.”

LENS board members admitted that putting the time and effort into the cause was challenging. They all juggle family responsibilities and multiple jobs outside of LENS, saying that there are not always enough financial resources available to keep the organization going.

But they said it continues to drive them to see the impact of their work. Alfonso said she enjoys working for the local YWCA, but she prides herself on serving the Evanston and North Shore Latine communities specifically through the “small but great” LENS organization.

“It does exactly what I’ve wanted for many, many years, and is (is) more focused in a certain way,” said Alfonso. “I enjoy everything when I do this job.”

Finance director Sandra Silvern, who also coordinates classes through LENS for English learners, said she was especially excited as students improve their English and advance to higher grades at community colleges and other programs.

Silvern described LENS as a “missing piece” in her life after working for a Chicago nonprofit for 20 years. When she first immigrated to the United States from Honduras, she said she faced many obstacles in the process of settling in. Now she said that she can finally give something back to the Latine community by sharing her hard-earned knowledge of the process.

“We’re all Latinos,” said Silvern. “We consider everyone from Mexico to Argentina to be sisters and brothers. We have to support ourselves in this country – inform, educate, preserve our culture and our traditions. “

For LENS, creating deeper connections between members of the Latine community has always been a priority, Fernández said. To this end, the group interacts personally with the members and uses feedback to inform initiatives for LENS directly.

Mayra Moreno said she recognizes the significant impact LENS has on the community.

As a family support attorney in the Evanston / Skokie School District 65, Moreno said she met several Latin American families in late 2020 who were struggling with food insecurity and financial problems. When she saw LENS help, provide the families with food and buy them gifts for the holidays, she decided to volunteer.

Moreno said being part of LENS means being part of something bigger than yourself.

“I noticed from their actions that they are based on the roots of the Latino community,” said Moreno. “Seeing these little seeds of knowledge, support, connection – among other things – (being) planted in people’s lives is something I believe goes back to the roots of unity.”

Katrina Pham contributed to the coverage.

E-mail: [email protected]

Twitter: @ rjleung7

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