Even after midnight, after a long day spent working multiple times, Rosa Velázquez is still looking forward to meeting her fellow Latinos in 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 go (have) some coffee, and they wake up, because we have to do a lot of things.”
The work of the organization keeps her and the other board members very busy these days. The nonprofit started in 2016 to provide programs and assistance to underserved Latin residents of Chicago’s northern suburbs. LENS received its nonprofit status earlier this year. But since its founding, it has only one goal: to serve 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 are also trying to take the temperature in our community. We have our ears on the ground, listening, “What do you need?” What do you want?’ And we try to react accordingly.
The organization is now spearheading a variety of initiatives, such as organizing courses for English language learners as well as celebrating Latin traditions like Día de los Muertos.
LENS Vice President Fabiola Alfonso said the pandemic inspired the organization to expand in physical and digital spaces. LENS has stepped up its services, from building online donation pages to creating virtual programming to opening a checking account and providing COVID-19 funds to the community.
Velázquez said it was difficult not only to learn Zoom, but also to teach community members how to navigate the program. Despite this, spreading knowledge has proven to be a rewarding process, she said.
“We are proud to have finished, we have helped the community to grow, to grow, not to stop,” said Velázquez. “What if you need another resource?” Yes, I can share. Why not, no? Because the community needs service.
One of the most popular of these services is its Spanish Book Club. The LENS Readers Club started on Zoom and has two sections that meet weekly. LENS provides club members with free copies of the book and welcomes participants of all reading levels.
Readers Club member Dolores Miranda said finding a community of people who share her culture has helped her come out of isolation from the pandemic.
She highlighted the meaningful conversations she had with other club members, where they shared their personal experiences and explored topics related to the books they were reading, all written in Spanish.
Everyone respects the opinions of others at the club, Miranda said, and the members have told personal stories that have marked her. She remembers a woman remembering the first dress she ever received from her mother.
“She said they couldn’t afford a dress, but somehow the mother made her a dress, and she felt like the prettiest girl ever. time because she was wearing this beautiful dress that her mother had made for her, ”Miranda mentioned. “Just thinking about it just makes you cry a little bit.”
LENS board members recognized that devoting a lot of time and effort to the cause has been a challenge. They all juggle family responsibilities and multiple jobs outside of LENS and have said that there are not always enough financial resources available to support the activities of the organization.
But they said seeing the impact of their work continues to energize them. Alfonso said she enjoyed working for the local YWCA, but was proud to serve the Evanston and North Shore Latin community specifically through the “small but powerful” LENS organization.
“It does exactly what I wanted for many years, and (is) more focused in a specific way,” Alfonso said. “I like everything when I do this job. “
Financial Director Sandra Silvern, who also coordinates courses through LENS for English learners, said she was especially happy to see students improve their English and move on to higher level courses at community colleges and other programs.
Silvern described LENS as a “missing piece” in his life after working for a Chicago nonprofit for 20 years. When she first immigrated from Honduras to the United States, she said she encountered many obstacles in settling. Now she said she can finally give back to the Latin community by sharing her hard-earned knowledge about the process.
“We’re all Latinos,” Silvern said. “We consider everyone, from Mexico to Argentina, brothers and sisters. We must support each other in this country – inform, educate, keep our culture and traditions. “
Creating deeper bonds between members of the Latin community has always been a priority for LENS, said Fernández. To do this, the group interacts personally with members and uses feedback to directly inform LENS initiatives.
Mayra Moreno said she recognizes the significant impact of LENS on the community.
As a Family Support Advocate at Evanston / Skokie School District 65, Moreno said she met several Latin families struggling with food insecurity and financial problems in late 2020. When she saw LENS step in to help, provide food for families and buy them gifts for the holidays, she said. decided she wanted to volunteer.
Moreno said that being a part of LENS means being a part of something bigger than yourself.
“What I have noticed from their actions is that they are grounded in the roots of the Latino community,” said Moreno. “Being able to see how these little seeds of knowledge, support, connection – among other things – (are) planted in people’s lives is something that I believe goes back to the roots of union.”
Katrina Pham contributed reporting.
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