Services center accommodates growing immigrant community

Latinos reach for Fells Point lifeline


The announcements go in rapid-fire succession. Someone is looking for Spanish-speaking volunteers to work in a local woman's shelter. Another person shares the dates and times for HIV tests targeting Latino day laborers. English classes, summer camps, health screenings. Everyone quickly scribbles down the details.

Once a month, a cavernous old room at Assisi House of St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Church in Fells Point is transformed into a nerve center of sorts for the area's burgeoning Latino immigrant community.

Here, social service providers, student volunteers, university professors and health care advocates who make up the nonprofit organization Latino Providers Network meet to share information to help their Hispanic clients.

What began 14 years ago as a loose connection of a handful of social service providers struggling to offer help to the community has grown into a one-stop clearinghouse of resources that aims to be a lifeline for recent immigrants.

"It's become a way to centralize all that collective interest, all that collective creativity," said Lisa Knickmeyer, director of Adelante Familia, a Baltimore nonprofit that offers domestic violence intervention for Latinos. "I hate missing a meeting, they are so chock full of things you need to know."

Knickmeyer, who began attending meetings seven years ago as an intern for the community group Centro de la Communidad, said the network has helped her build partnerships that have benefited her organization. For instance, a staff member from Baltimore Health Care Access works at Adelante Familia part time, helping women enroll their children in the state's health insurance program for poor children.

Ileana Luciani, the network's executive director and a paralegal at the Maryland Disability Law Center, said the concept of the network was to better coordinate the services available to immigrant Latinos.

When she became involved in the organization in 1999, Baltimore had barely 11,000 Hispanic residents, according to the U.S. Census. Nevertheless, said Luciani, needs such as better translation services from city agencies and culturally sensitive medical care were obvious.

The most recent census estimates place the city's Hispanic population at about 13,500, but advocates think that with a recent surge in new immigrants, the city has twice that many Hispanics.

In 2003, the network began an education campaign after receiving complaints from non-English-speaking Latinos who said they had trouble communicating with teachers. Parents received letters from schools in Spanish, but the translations were generated by a computer program and made no linguistic sense.

Latino Providers Network followed up on parents' complaints and since last year has been meeting monthly with representatives from the school system to iron out problems, Luciani said.

"The biggest need to me, and it always will be, is education and communication," she said.

The network has reached beyond traditional Latino-oriented service providers. It has attracted city and county agencies, legal aid attorneys and graduate students from the Johns Hopkins University's health fields seeking advice on how to reach the region's growing Latino community.

"Now, it's the other groups that are coming to ask for assistance from us," said Luciani. "They use us as an entry point into the community."

Through grants, the network has also taken on projects of its own. This fall, it plans to begin a project that will train local women to be health advocates in their communities, educating their neighbors on the dangers of breast and cervical cancer.

When Kathleen Westcoat, president of Baltimore Health Care Access, which assists Medicaid enrollees, learned of a federal law imposing a new citizenship requirement for Medicaid recipients, she immediately made arrangements to attend a network meeting, knowing that members would notify the community at large.

"All the great organizations in the Latino community are there," she said. "What better place to go to find out what's going on but there?"

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