Published in the Spring 2008 issue of SSA Magazine

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by Margaret Littman

If you were to plot it on a graph, the rise would be startling. When Casa Central was founded in 1954 to focus on the social service needs of Hispanics in Chicago's inner city, it had a budget of just $26,000. When current president and CEO Ann R. Alvarez took the helm in 1989, the group's budget stood at $3.5 million. Today, that budget is $15.8 million, and Casa Central's helping hands stretch into the suburbs and exurbs, making it the largest Hispanic social service agency in the Midwest.

Since Alvarez took the reins, the organization has seen aggressive growth in terms of size, programming, and name-recognition, while keeping to its initial mission to "transform lives and strengthen communities, with a special emphasis on Hispanics." Now, with demographic trends indicating that Chicago and its suburbs will continue to see large growth in the Hispanic population, she is working to ensure that Casa Central can provide its broad mix of services further and better than ever before.

Casa Central currently serves more than 20,000 clients annually with 23 different programs, from infants in child development centers to senior citizens who use the adult wellness center. "Our clients have a vision of what they want their lives to be like. Our employees put together the programs and services that help children, youth, adults, and seniors get ahead and realize some of their dreams," says Alvarez, a 1976 graduate of SSA's master's program and a member of the School's Visiting Committee. She says that she's heard about families that have been helped over the years as different needs arise: perhaps first with a child, then later for vocational training, and then for senior care—with their children and grandchildren being served as well.

"For some families, Casa Central is their one-stop shop. That is a great concept. A woman can drop a child off at day care, go to an employment or academic course and her school-age children can go to the same place after school, and then they all go home together. It is a great model," says Juana Ballesteros, director of the Greater Humboldt Park Community of Wellness, an organization that has partnered with Casa Central.

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Under Alvarez's hand, the agency has extended many of its programs to better meet the needs of the communities where it operates. For example, Casa Central has expanded its early-learning centers, which help prepare low income kids for kindergarten, and more resources have been devoted to both preventing teen pregnancy and teaching parenting skills to teens who have children. The agency offers domestic violence intervention, an employment program for adults over age 55, and foster care and adoption services as well.

Wrap-around services are also part of Casa Central's work with homeless families. The agency provides 21 transitional apartments, called "La Posada," where those in need can stay for up to four months. "We don't just offer them an apartment," Alvarez says. "We help people who have been in limbo to make their life changes. We ensure success when they leave the program." The staff works with clients to develop a plan that includes coordinating with Chicago Public Schools to bring kids up to grade level, providing adult vocational training, and offering follow- up for a year, even after the family leaves La Posada.

Approximately 84 percent of those served by the agency are Hispanic. The concept and strategies behind Casa Central are not that Hispanics have different needs per se than other immigrants, but that cultural sensitivity, experience, and communication improves services. All of the staff who work in direct contact with clients are bilingual, and 98 percent are bicultural, giving them a commonality with their clients and a level of understanding that is hard to find at more general social service agencies, Alvarez says. Casa Central offers ESL courses to its clients, and other programs are influenced by the agency's focus on Hispanic communities. For instance, since many Hispanic teen parents continue to live at home after a baby is born, programs for young parents take into account how family support may be a factor.

Casa Central's unique role in Chicago's Hispanic communities is well illustrated by an annual telethon for the agency each spring on Channel 44/Telemundo, the Spanish-language TV network. Broadcast live from Casa Central and the Telemundo studio in April this year for the 26th annual event, the station mixed live appeals and segments on the agency's programs instead of commercials over five hours to increase awareness of Casa Central and bring in donors.

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Alvarez was raised in a Brooklyn, N.Y., family where empathy and public service were part of her "cultural upbringing and values," she says. Those qualities led her to a career as a social worker, and she worked as a clinician in the Chicago Public Schools for a dozen years after earning her degree at SSA. "At CPS, I applied what I had learned at SSA on a daily basis with teachers, students, parents, and administrators. To understand where people are coming from, you must try to understand what they do and why they do it and perfect a process where you really look at people through the lens of their strengths and needs," Alvarez says.

Alvarez's husband, Rev. Daniel Alvarez, was head of Casa Central for 25 years and is considered its founder, establishing many of the programs that are still viable today. In 1989, he was asked to become commissioner of human services for the City of Chicago, a post that he expected to last three years. The board of directors asked Alvarez to come in during the interim, but 19 years later, she still has that "temporary" post. "The board knew of my social work with the school system and my master's degree from the School of Social Service Administration, and they believed I could lead the effort," she says.

Despite the obvious strong business and administrative skills that have permitted Casa Central to grow under her watch, part of Alvarez's success formula is that she hasn't forgotten the people who need the services, says David Parkyn, president of North Park University. Alvarez was a board member at North Park and was on the search committee that hired Parkyn two years ago. He calls Alvarez, "a gift to Chicago," because of her one-two punch of compassion and consensus-building. "Her leadership style is to find a need and then champion it in front of others so that she can find others to help," he says. "She finds ways to get others to walk with her to respond to that need."

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Despite Casa Central's steady growth in size and services, Alvarez has been working to help the agency expand its reach. "Right now we are looking at ways to respond to emerging needs in neighborhoods such as Belmont Cragin, Hermosa, and West Lawn and suburban communities such as Berwyn, Cicero, and Melrose Park that have seen an increase in the Latino population," Alvarez says. "We are responding to community need."

Thanks to a recent two-year $200,000 grant from the Bank of America, Casa Central will be able to tackle the demographic growth in the suburbs. That support will help check off two items on Alvarez's to-do list for the agency, as she is also working to expand Casa Central's funding sources. Currently, 85 percent of Casa Central's operating funds come from government contracts; recent funders include the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, Illinois Department of Aging, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"Many of our government grants have been stable, like Head Start, and they do not go away year after year, although the requirements have changed," Alvarez says, but she adds that to diversify funding, the team is looking to add more support from corporations, foundations, and individuals.

In the same vein, Alvarez is working with a number of other Chicago-area nonprofits, including Metropolitan Family Services, to develop a consortium of local social service agencies that will consolidate back-office functions. The group is hoping that the initiative will result in cost-savings in purchasing and other efforts, which would allow the organizations to focus more on their constituents.

Operating a large social service agency requires a healthy combination of administrative savvy, open-hearted compassion, and deep understanding of the clients' needs and strengths. Lucky for Casa Central, Ann Alvarez has all of the above.