Blog

An accomplishment I never imagined possible

By Karen Arango

Karen Arango

Receiving my MA has been an enormous blessing. It is an accomplishment I never imagined or thought possible. When I went to college for my undergrad, I knew I wanted to get a Master’s Degree as well but with all the debt I had, the possibility seemed impossible.

Thankfully, this community supported me and helped me with scholarships to further my education and continue giving back to my community as a visual artist. I know many doors to my career and my future are opening, and I can’t wait to see where it all takes me.

When I think about my arrival to the United States, more than twenty years ago, and where I am now, I get emotional to think of all I’ve been able to accomplish and contribute to the country that has given me a home.

Mentoring UnidosNow scholars is an honor. The scholars have so much desire to succeed that it is both humbling and exciting to see. Although I’m grateful to have the opportunity to mentor some scholars, it is fantastic to know that my educational and career experience can help someone’s academic path. In the end, I learn more from them than what they learn from me. The FLA scholars are wonderful, and the program is highly impactful to these students. 

Nicole Llamas, Karen Arango’s mentee.

Education as a resource to my community

By Lucero Guzman

Lucero and her mom in 2016, during her participation at the Future Leaders Academy.

Five summers ago, I was busy getting ready for my senior year of high school. I was attending all the UnidosNow Future Leaders Academy workshops, planning for my next step. College seemed far away, but my senior year of high school was over before I knew it. That year, with the help of UnidosNow, I decided to attend the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee.

After high school graduation I was looking forward to a new chapter. College was filled with late nights studying, the occasional all-nighter, friends, school events, and a lot of thinking about the future. From medical school to epidemiology to genetics and so much more, I was constantly changing what I wanted to do with my biology degree. Getting involved with UnidosNow as an intern opened even more possibilities that I had not considered, but realized I was just as passionate about. 

Lucero and her parents on her graduation in 2021.

The majority of my last two years of college took an unexpected turn with the start of the pandemic. Although everything was online, those last two years contained some of my favorite classes and the classes that made me look at my future career with more excitement than ever. I am interested in a research based career and am taking the time after graduation to explore different areas. I am involved in a marine science seagrass research project over the summer and I plan to explore a different field upon completion. Meanwhile, I am still involved with UnidosNow, which brings me so much joy. When I work with our young students, I am able to be the person I wish I had been as a child. 

I already edited this paragraph above.Having the opportunity to attend college is something that I do not take for granted. From an early age, I knew that there were realities in my life that put me at a disadvantage in comparison to my peers. I was constantly reminded by my parents to not be afraid or discouraged. Thanks to them, I was determined to not give anything or anyone the power to take my dreams from me. School became my biggest priority because I knew that education was the greatest equalizer and a passport out of my situation. As first-generation students, we often carry high expectations from others and ourselves, a longing to improve the lives of our parents, and the need to build our own future. All these experiences and goals were and continue to be my driving force throughout college and beyond.

I will not say that my journey to college and my journey to graduation was easy but it was rewarding to keep my dreams in the forefront no matter what challenge presented itself. The achievement of graduating with honors from college is not just mine, but also of my parents who sacrificed everything, my community, and UnidosNow. I am excited to continue using my education as a resource to my community.

Unidos to Find Hope Amidst the Chaos

2020 taught many lessons to all of us, but one that UnidosNow kept on learning was to be the advocate and support system for our struggling scholars and families who were being disproportionately hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. UnidosNow adapted our programming and services to continue serving our families, but we also adapted our approach to last year’s Giving Challenge to ensure we had the resources to be there to support our families. Below, read Camila Fermin’s story, one of our Future Leaders Academy Barancik scholars to whom we’ve been able to help thanks, in part, to our successful 2020 Giving Challenge. In this essay, she recalls what 2020 meant for her and how UnidosNow was there to assist her.

By Camila Fermin, Future Leaders Academy Barancik Scholar

In March of 2020, I left school for Spring Break. Junior year is chaotic to say the least, so I was nothing but excited to have some days off. And then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and I became worried for the virus and disappointed I had to stay home, but I was still relieved to have more days off; “it will be just two weeks,” I thought. And then the break extended to the rest of the school year –– and then I stayed quarantined at home for about 9 months. 

My transition to senior year was more stressful than it should have been, thanks to the virus outbreak. While I worked on my resume and personal statement in the Summer through the Future Leaders Academy, the burdens of this worldwide phenomenon started to affect my life. At first, I spent long days taking care of my 5-year-old brother as my mom worked. Later, my stepfather and my mom lost their jobs due to layoffs; so, I spent long days with them as well. This situation was the origin of a serious financial struggle that meant a source of worry for my family. 

Despite these hard circumstances, I was fortunate enough to rely on my second family. UnidosNow provided me with a support system that guided me through the hardships of 2020. My household was only one of the hundreds who benefitted, and continue to benefit, from the creation of an Emergency Fund that arose from the altruism and advocacy of donors and community members. My family was offered help with rent and utilities, expenses that meant a heavy weight on our shoulders. 

Beyond economic assistance, UnidosNow gave me the opportunity to be heard, mentored, and motivated. When one’s environment is out of our control, it is easier to lose incentive to work towards a goal, for it feels that we have no hold of our future to make this plan a reality. However, as an FLA Scholar, I looked forward to seeing the smiles of my hard-working peers, who never stopped trying, through Zoom meetings. The program’s volunteers and participants became one of reasons I realized that I had to continue acting to achieve my future objective of receiving an undergraduate education. Although I lost hope sometimes, thinking that I would never be able to afford college, I drew strength from their experiences and their drive along with the expertise of our mentors. With them, I overcame the challenges of remote classes and activities, exams, college applications, money issues, and personal frustrations.  

This empowerment became possible because UnidosNow never stopped innovating. When in-person activities went against CDC guidelines, the team went virtual for meetings. When the problem of kids being academically behind emerged, the organization partnered with YourAdvance (a business founded by an FLA Scholar) to offer online tutoring. When the time to vote in the 2020 presidential elections came, a group of students worked with UnidosNow’s resources to launch the campaign Mi Voto Mi Futuro to promote the vote in Hispanic communities. UnidosNow delivers aid in the form of initiatives that serve youths while engaging them in the supply of these services, with the purpose of shaping them into leaders.

Today, as a young low-income woman who migrated from her homeland Venezuela only 3 years ago, I recognize the importance of optimism, sacrifice, and valuable relationships. I had the honor to serve as Class Speaker at my graduation ceremony; I conquered the obstacles that 2020 had for me, my generation, and the rest of the world; and I accepted a full ride at Stanford University, where I will head to in the Fall. UnidosNow is the pillar of these achievements. Thanks to the members of this organization and the donors who fund their labor, I did not only survive but thrived in my search for hope in the face of adversity. 

The Right “Formula” for UnidosNow and Our Community: Interviewing Enrique Gomez-Palacio

By Sandy Chase

Deflecting the spotlight speaks volumes about Enrique Palacio—an astute financial analyst, role model, and philanthropist—who says, “I have always believed, as part of my Christian faith, that social involvement is a must.”

Enrique embodies “true charity” because over the years, he’s given his time, talents, energy, resources, and finances to Hispanic organizations—hoping to strengthen community.  For several years he’s been involved with issues connected to the growth of the Latino population in the United States.

Executive Director Luz Corcuera says, “Enrique Palacio is one of our most amazing Latino professionals, personal mentor, and trusted friend.  Dedicated to UnidosNow, he’s our ‘poster child’ because of his hard work and business savvy—embracing two cultures—earning an MBA from Columbia University (NYC) and acquiring noteworthy business experience and expertise.”

Enrique’s diverse career spans years worked in large multinationals and mid-sized companies—eventually owning an industrial metals distribution company.

Dominic Casanueva, managing director of Merrill Lynch in Sarasota—repeatedly recognized by Forbes and Barrons during his 15-year financial career—has nothing but praise.

“I’ve had the privilege of partnering with Enrique to help manage his family’s investments and finances.  In working with him, I’ve found his insights into domestic and global economics and investments to be incredibly helpful and practical.”  

Dominic continues:  “It’s been inspiring to watch Enrique blend his analytical talents with his passion to support and develop the next generation of leaders.”  

Luz Corcuera agrees, saying, “Enrique’s understanding of and ongoing advocacy for the talented first-generation, low-income, college-bound Latinos have reinforced our mission work.  He’s steadfast in inspiring our team and students to dream big.”

Other community leaders, such as Manatee Community Foundation’s Executive Director Susie Bowie—an UnidosNow advocate—have nothing but praise for this successful, altruistic businessman.

“Enrique is a leader in his approach to giving and education, working hand in hand with students, to allow them to achieve success, confidence, and security in their higher education journey.”

Susie highlights how “His focus on anticipating needs that fall outside the typical expenses covered by financial aid and scholarships enables first-generation students to stay the course in college—an investment that helps the individual and our community.” 

President and CEO of Community Foundation of Sarasota County Roxie Jerde concurs:  “During a breakfast meeting with Enrique a few years ago, I was most impressed by his commitment to Latino students—his passion and focus.”

Luz summarizes who Enrique is:  “By constantly teaching our community to elevate its philanthropic spirit, we are all strengthening Sarasota and Bradenton—and areas beyond.”

When did you learn about UnidosNow?  

Before relocating to Sarasota in 2014, I lived in North Carolina, arriving in the late 90s.  At that time, I had a difficult time finding anyone else who spoke Spanish.  When I left—roughly 20 years later—it was estimated to be home to 350,000 Latinos. 

There were a lot of tough issues that came out of such a large influx of immigrants, and I was involved in a number of them.  Through the efforts of many people, the situation in North Carolina began to change—continuing to improve to this day.   

Once I arrived in Sarasota, it was natural for me to seek out people involved with improving the lives of Latinos.  Soon I was led to UnidosNow.

Luz Corcuera and I found that we had a lot of common interests and began to have periodic cafecitos (coffee chats), exchanging findings and sharing ideas.

Why do you support this nonprofit?

Even though I am mostly retired, the analytical work I still do on the economy and in finance revealed—quite some time ago—that powerful trends towards automation, artificial intelligence, and other advances would drastically curtail opportunities for persons with a limited education. 

When one specifically looks at the existing picture on educational achievements by children of recent Latino immigrants in the United States—and particularly in Florida—the situation is bleak.  Not only is the number of students seeking college degrees quite low, but many students who manage to enter college end up leaving school—before earning a degree.

How has your relationship with UnidosNow evolved?

Luz and I were able—with difficulty—to find some limited research on why Latinos drop out of college.  We would like to sponsor more research in this area.  But in the meantime, we have zeroed in on indications in the research that financial emergencies faced by some students force them to leave college prematurely. 

Could we find a way to help those students—financially—stay in college?  

We launched a pilot project:  the Latino Fund involves a student-support program designed to provide limited emergency assistance—accessible for four years—so that a student doesn’t get swamped unexpectedly by a money problem—negatively affecting academic performance.  By providing the necessary means, this project is also geared to students who are studying out of state so they can stay connected with their families.  

We still have a lot to learn, but there are some indications that such a program can indeed assist students in critical situations and, more importantly, provide a sense that economic assistance can be available if needed.

UnidosNow works on a wide range of valuable community programs.  My plans, however, are to concentrate my support of the organization’s work to try to get students to attend college—and stay—until they complete their programs and earn a degree.  Luz and I are laser-focused on that goal.

A friend of mine recently put it this way: college education is on its way to becoming a matter of existential life or death.  It sounds extreme but I believe it to be true.

The ABCs for a Stronger Community: Interviewing Robert Howe of Team Success A School of Excellence

by Sandy Chase

When you think of Team Success, remember your ABCs:  Alliances Bolster Communities.  In this case, the partnership between UnidosNow and the charter school is a lesson worth learning.

Collaboration is a keystone of Team Success, an exceptional school in the Manatee County School District.  Having earned a reputation as the highest-performing Title I school in the county, its students continue to lead with impressive math, civics, and science scores based on the Florida State Assessment.

CEO Armando Viota says, “We are a team, where everyone plays a fundamental part in the education of our students.  Bus operators, maintenance, support staff, cafeteria, faculty, parents and families, and administration work together to ensure our students’ success!”

So it’s no wonder that the partnership with UnidosNow—sponsoring its high-school club (organized in October 2020), parent focus groups, and other endeavors—continues to bolster the community.

What’s even more impressive is that Future Leaders Academy (FLA) Barancik Scholar Genesis Getsemani Martinez and proud student of the Class of 2021 took the initiative to help establish this partnership—ultimately becoming the club leader.   

Having heard about the school through a family friend, Genesis began as a 4th grader, nine years ago.  

She has only praise for the school, comprising kindergarten through 12th grade—whose students are low-income, first-generation Latinos seeking post-graduate education.  

“I wanted to attend Team Success because they actually care about our education. They really push us to our limit and motivate us to keeping going.  They have been amazing.” 

She enjoys Team Success “because our classes are small, and teachers focus on individual students so everyone gets the attention they need.  Our relationship with our teachers makes it easy to ask for help and be myself.”

Planning to attend State College of Florida and pursue a career in social work, Genesis approached her College Counselor Robert Howe to explore possibilities of having an UnidosNow Club.

“One day I was explaining to Mr. Howe about UnidosNow, FLA, and our high-school clubs.  Becoming interested, he reached out to the organization.”  

UnidosNow Executive Director Luz Corcuera says, “Last year, Team Success contacted us, wanting to establish a club at the school.  We followed up with a presentation that generated great interest and engagement.  Since that time, we continue to build a strong relationship that helps promote our mission of elevating, educating, and integrating.”

Beaming, Genesis says, “I’m proud that our club allows us to help other college-bound students and those who will choose a career upon graduation. We now have 15 members.”

Like other UnidosNow high-school clubs, the one at Team Success has taught her about the college application process and the many post-secondary options available.

“Mr. Howe, our advisor, ensures that the club provides hands-on experiences, including completing college applications, writing essays, and applying for financial aid and scholarships.”   

Genesis says, “The greatest thing about the club is becoming a better version of ourselves—myself.  We also gain confidence.”

Genesis has also had to deal with challenges, saying, “I must communicate with members, understanding their needs.  When we first began, we had lots of ideas, but we were disorganized.”  

Through trial and error, Genesis has learned that she needed to set due dates and speak with her officers, striving to become a role model.

“At first, I was uncomfortable pointing out our mistakes, but I quickly realized that I had to tell them what needed to be done.  Working together, we were able to roll with the club.”

Rising Team Success senior and FLA scholar Dianna Lezama, who’s considering Harvard as her postsecondary choice, attests to the club’s success:

“I look forward to attending the UnidosNow club because it opens up new opportunities for me, and I get to meet incredible and amazing people.” 

That partnership between Team Success and UnidosNow exemplifies that practicing the ABCs helps encourage success for life.  

Why was Team Success established?

Team Success was established because our founder and visionary, Fred Spence, saw a need in the community to serve the underprivileged students and families in the Manatee County School District. 

The charter school was founded in 1997, operating under the umbrella of the Police Athletic League (PAL).  In 2013, the name became Team Success – A School of Excellence.  

Describe your collaboration with UnidosNow? 

After being introduced to UnidosNow by Genesis, when she was a junior, Team Success started its own UnidosNow Club—one of the biggest in Manatee County—pre-pandemic. 

We had our meetings—sometimes during school breaks and in the summer—here on campus because transportation for some of our families is difficult.  They have been at our parental-involvement meetings, focus groups, and other workshops—all resulting in a thriving community. 

How has your collaboration helped strengthen your high-school students’ future?

The UnidosNow club has served the students by providing them with more resources than they would ordinarily receive.  Our club also provides increased opportunities for our high-school graduating class.

Many of our students are coming from a background where their parents haven’t received much education.  Our club and UnidosNow better inform our population and their parents of the massive amount of resources and assistance they can receive.  

How has your School of Excellence helped bolster the Hispanic community—particularly your high-school seniors?  What goals do you have for that continued success?

We have helped to bolster the Hispanic community by promoting the idea that our students can achieve great things if they put their minds to it.  I’m constantly amazed at these kids and how hard they work even in light of their family’s challenging circumstances. 

In the future, we plan to open more facilities and add resources for our students.  One of the ways we are realizing our goals is by opening a second campus near the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport for our growing population.  In this way, we can help students explore possibilities in the aviation industry—opening the door to more avenues of success.

What is most fulfilling about working at Team Success?

As the college and career counselor, the most fulfilling aspect about working here is that I am able to help students reach their future career dreams.  I’m proud that our Class of 2021—the first graduating class—will embark on the journey to continued success.    

Most of our seniors came to us as early as 2009, when we had only grades K-8.  In 2017 we started our high school.

Now, they are about to receive their high-school diplomas.  The majority of our seniors have signed up for post-secondary education, preparing to pursue careers in social work, auto repair, law, and engineering.  There are no limits!

Interviewing Luz Corcuera: The Guiding Light of Our Community

by Sandy Chase

Be a voice for the voiceless and encourage others to use their voice. No one person can do it alone. Together, we can change the world.  

– Executive Director of UnidosNow Luz Corcuera, Speech at Women in Power Award Luncheon

Praised by her staff, volunteers, students and parents, alumni, and community leaders for her untiring effort and insightful strategies, Luz continues to serve as a role model—not only for the Latino community but for all who have collaborated with UnidosNow.

Peruvian-born, Luz and her husband experienced years of terrorism and political unrest before moving to Toronto, Canada, and finally to Sarasota in 2000.  Having overcome the challenges of integrating into a new community and country, Luz endorses education—empowering one to realize all dreams.

Aptly named, Luz has indeed brightened the lives of the underserved whether at UnidosNow or during her earlier health career as program director for Healthy Start Coalition and community health director for the Florida Department of Health, both in Manatee County; or as a family and group therapist in Canada, retaining her membership in the Ontario Society of Psychotherapists.

Berit Dullerud and Luz Corcuera.

Berit Dullerud, MSW, RSW, Luz’s supervisor at the Toronto Hospital—dubbed “best boss ever” by Luz—remembers a committed, ethical, competent professional.

“A fun individual with a smile that lit up the room, Luz was focused on women’s health and well-being.  She always saw the potential in everyone.  Luz wanted to assist women improve their lives—continuing to succeed.”

A recipient of numerous awards, including Martin Luther King Jr. Outstanding Citizen Award (April 2005, Palmetto Youth Center); Women in Business Leadership Award (May 2019, SRQ Media); and Women in Power Award (January 2019, National Council of Jewish Women), Luz continues to execute her values:  improving the lives of women, children, and families by safeguarding their rights and freedoms:

But according to her, no award—no matter how meaningful—can compete with feedback from individuals she’s inspired.  

Future Leaders Academy (FLA) alumnus Oscar Portillo-Meza’s comments encapsulate the effect she’s had on future generations.  Graduating from the University of South Florida (USF) next spring, he’ll receive a degree in economics, after which he intends to apply to the USF College of Business for an MBA.

From left to right, FLA Alumni Vanessa Tasé-Sueiro, Esther García, Jane Plitt, Luz Corcuera, and FLA Alumni Oscar Portillo.

“Luz has been a mentor and a guiding North Star.  She’s gone to bat for me probably far more than deserved.  Her advocacy for students in dire need and for the future of education is unmatched and brilliantly done.  She has taken the meaning of leading by example to the next level.”

Oscar continues:  “Because of UnidosNow, I was able to cling onto the great equalizer: higher education. As my undergraduate journey nears its end, I reflect on the guidance and tools that UnidosNow offered me as a young man, realizing their effectiveness—for now and the future.  I’m grateful for how UnidosNow continues to shape me—for the better.” 

Lucero Guzman, soon to receive her BA in biology from USF, also exemplifies how Luz has encouraged her to dream big—to pursue higher education.  

“Luz had believed in me before I believed in myself. Although I have always been dedicated to learning, I struggled to find my place as a first-generation student.  I’m thrilled to give back by mentoring FLA students as a peer buddy in the UnidosNow College Completion Program.”

Wil Colon, Lucero Guzman, Corie Naeger, Wendy Barroso, Luz Corcuera, Lisbeth Oscuvilca with Elek, and Lisa Ramirez.

As an intern, working with the Future Leaders Academy for Elementary-School Girls and Future Leaders Academy for Middle School, Lucero plans and delivers workshops for these students.  She also communicates with parents—vital during this pandemic.

Lucero echoes others’ sentiments:  “I look up to Luz’s compassionate, strategic, value-driven leadership.  Without UnidosNow, my path to higher education would have been bumpy—lacking the unique direction, mentorship, and purpose that UnidosNow helps students find.” 

Luz personifies her commitment to education—for herself as well.  Receiving a bachelor’s and master’s degree in Clinical and Organizational Psychology was just the beginning.  Pursuing a second master’s in Pastoral Ministry—to deepen her faith and understanding of social justice—was the next step on her educational journey.  

Her first-semester professor at Florida’s Rice School for Pastoral Ministry (Barry University), Sallie Latkovich, DMin, CSJ, remembers welcoming Luz to the social justice class: 

“I was impressed by Luz’s intelligence, faith, and insight—especially her love of learning and of befriending those ‘on the periphery.’  A woman of a strong, tender heart, she wept as we viewed the story of Oscar Romero of El Salvador, who advocated for the oppressed.”  

Dr. Latkovich continues:  “To this very day, I admire all Luz’s ministry of service in the various organizations she’s led, especially, Unidos Now.”

Dr. Sallie Latkovich.

On numerous occasions, you’ve mentioned your gratitude to volunteers—not only at UnidosNow but through your earlier directorships in the health field.  What would UnidosNow look like if there were no volunteers?

Our volunteers are the heart of UnidosNow.  Without their support, passion, and dedication, we wouldn’t be able to accomplish our mission.  UnidosNow began—thanks to the vision and work of caring volunteers who were committed to find ways to elevate the quality of life of the growing Latinx community in our region.  Our volunteers, who come from different places and possess various fields of expertise, are unexpected gifts.  

These altruistic individuals share their time, talent, and treasure to make sure that our students and their families are able to create a better life and future for all of us.  UnidosNow would look like an isolated island—with very few resources—if it weren’t for the generous people who are at the core of what we are able to accomplish together.

What messages do you have for Latino students and their parents?

Our main goal is empowering you, which entails having to put in the extra work to commit to all our programmatic demands and never stop dreaming big or believing in your ability to make those big dreams a reality.  

Luz Corcuera and Roxie Jerde with our Parent Leadership parents and their children.

We inspire parents through our Parent Leadership Program.  Attendees learn English, life skills, and available community resources—as well as how to support their children’s educational goals.  Parents feel more confident when you can use your voice and do not have to depend on others, particularly on your children.  

With the growth of the young Latino population, we have a responsibility and moral obligation to ensure that our future is in the best hands possible and we can accomplish this goal only when our students are able to reach their fullest potential.   

UnidosNow gives you all possible tools to succeed.  We encourage you to be proud of who you are and of your cultural and family values—sharing that richness with the entire community.  

Education is vital to creating circles of opportunities for others and to pave the road for generations to come.  I have no doubt that this generation of leaders is filled with conviction, ambition, hard work, love for our country, and compassion.  Our future is in great hands.

 What do you look for when hiring staff or choosing your professionals to oversee a particular program?

As a general practice, I hire people based on a combination of values—extremely important—and expertise.  Every team member needs to breathe the passion for our mission.  Understanding the needs and aspirations of the people we serve is key to effective, meaningful work.  

Of course, people need to have the skills and be open to learn what they need to empower the talented, hardworking, resilient students and their parents to create a better life—opening opportunities for others.  I like to have people with natural curiosity, who are not afraid to innovate and think outside the box.  We have a conference table where we gather for our team meetings—named “Innovation Station.”  That pretty much says it all.

The UnidosNow Team at Manatee Technical College in May 2016.

Every idea is welcomed.  Being a small organization, every team member has primary responsibilities, but we all need to be ready to wear multiple hats at a given time.  I am very proud of my team and grateful for their never-ending creativity, energy, and passion for empowering others to succeed. 

A small organization—with big dreams—we respect, trust, love, and rely on one another.   UnidosNow is a caring family that looks out for others.  Our alumni know that they can always count on us.

What are some of the latest UnidosNow initiatives?  What changes do you want to implement? 

The pandemic has taken UnidosNow to uncharted territory.  We were forced to add outreach, education, emergency assistance, and access to vaccines—to our already flourishing programs.  

Hundreds of families turned to us or agencies referred them, making it a difficult decision to take all this on.  But we were fortunate that our generous community understood and supported our efforts.  

I am proud of my team for being able to switch—without any interruptions—to an all-virtual format.  Luckily, before the pandemic hit us, we had upgraded some of our technology and were able to make significant changes.

In addition, we developed a tutoring program for our parents and students—with the help of our alumni and high-school students.  One of our scholars had the initiative of starting his own nonprofit—recruiting tutors from his peers—seeing it grow exponentially.  As we move forward, we need to continue innovating—being flexible to the emerging needs of the students and families we serve.

We are also now providing paid internships to our students who are doing a fabulous job helping in our different programs.  Equally important is the participation of our parent ambassadors who are trusted members in their own communities and have been instrumental in helping us with our efforts to provide outreach and education related to Covid-19 and now with access to vaccines.

As executive director, what has been most fulfilling?

What brings a big smile to my heart is hearing or seeing:

  • Stories and testimonials from our students and parents, learning how they’ve used their wings to fly high.
  • Parents inspired by their children—returning to school or improving their jobs choices.
  • Our elementary-school girls talking the language of robotics, coding, and science; and competing as a team. 
  • Parents getting involved as coaches of a robotics team after receiving necessary training.  

What also rewards me is hearing from our alumni, who share their challenges and successes—proud of how they put to good use the tools they learned in our programs.  But most important, is knowing that every effort we make as a collective has a tremendous effect on others.  

Given the extensive UnidosNow programs, what do you envision UnidosNow will look like in 2030?

There is no question that the pandemic has brought many challenges, and nobody knows what the new normal will be.  I see the next decade for UnidosNow as a decade of growth.  

Luckily, we have an entire generation of students who will have graduated from college or will have started on a career path.  They are already role models for younger generations who aspire to be on the same path one day. I think UnidosNow is well-positioned—embracing trust and empowerment.  

Given your noteworthy health career, why did you choose to vie for executive director position after Hector’s retirement? 

Hector Tejeda, Wendy Barroso, Luz Corcuera and Lucero Guzman.

I did not vie for the position.  I kept in touch with the leadership of UnidosNow from its inception and joined forces in some advocacy initiatives, supporting some of their efforts in a limited capacity over the years.  

Hector Tejeda came to UnidosNow—with his passion, knowledge, and credentials and took UnidosNow to a higher level, along with Catalina Kaiyoorawongs—giving a solid seal to what it is now the FLA for high-school students.  

In 2015, Kelly Kirschner invited me to lead UnidosNow.  My immediate suggestion was that the board of directors advertise the position nationwide and search for a dynamic, young college graduate who could take the organization to the next level.  I had other professional responsibilities at the moment and, at first, I did not want to consider this role.  

Although Hector had retired from his pharmaceutical career before locating to Sarasota, he assumed the leadership of UnidosNow until December 2015, when he suggested that the board find a new executive director for the organization.

It was only after several conversations with Kelly and the board and looking at the direction that UnidosNow had taken and the growth of the Latino population in the region that I entertained the thought of taking on this challenge. 

I am happy to say that in January 2016 I joined the team to lead the organization.  I wanted to build on the success of the FLA for high-school students by going deeper and empowering middle- and elementary-school students—expanding and enhancing our parental engagement component.  

I have enjoyed every second being dedicated to UnidosNow:  it has afforded me the opportunity to work with amazing community partners, volunteers, and generous donors who embrace UnidosNow’s mission.

Who have been you role models?

UnidosNow’s Noche Latina, October 2019.

My role model has always been my parents and, in particular, my mother:  an intelligent, loving, and giving woman.  She always found the way to make everyone feel special and to encourage me and my siblings to be the best version of ourselves, whereas my father reminded us about the value of the education—instilling high expectations.  

All along I’ve had teachers, friends, and mentors who inspired me to go after my dreams and live life to the fullest.  I have been fortunate that my mentors have come along at different stages in my life and have helped my personal and professional growth.

Where Are The Jobs?

REACH Manatee and its partners are excited to share the 2021 Where are the Jobs?, a guide that has the highest demand jobs in our region listed by educational pathway.

In partnership with CareerEdge, REACH Manatee has been able to update the document, and they are grateful also to their workforce partners who offered input and insights on the labor market analysis to identify the jobs included in the guide.

Bank of America has generously provided a grant for the printed version to be used at schools, youth organizations and partners who want to provide it to students and families, and/or incorporate it into their educational programming.

Read the full report here.

UnidosNow Shows the Community What Is Possible: An Interview With Debra Jacobs, CEO and President of The Patterson Foundation

by Sandy Chase

Since its inception, only 10 years ago, UnidosNow has proved itself as a role model for other community nonprofits.

During a recent interview, CEO and President Debra Jacobs of The Patterson Foundation (TPF) attributed this Latino organization’s success to its “magic sauce,” consisting of leadership, willingness, readiness, capacity, and culture—“spiced” by its passion to ensure that Latinos achieve their potential.  

An inexperienced organization, UnidosNow had to establish itself by building its reputation—one program at a time—especially focusing on improving opportunities for college-bound teens, which has come to be known as the Future Leaders Academy, the model for other showcase programs.

As it evolved, UnidosNow defined its mission of elevating the quality of life of the growing Hispanic/Latino community through education, integration, and civic engagement.  Debra points out that during her tenure as president at the William G. and Marie Selby Foundation, she was fortunate to be a sounding board for Kelly Kirschner, an UnidosNow co-founder and current chair.

Collaborating with TPF, most notably by having been chosen as one of five nonprofits to benefit from Margin & Mission Ignition 2018 (MMI), UnidosNow continues to learn how to develop and implement revenue-generating ventures.  

TPF also supports UnidosNow through the Giving Challenge and by posting Executive Director Luz Corcuera’s recent blogs on TPF’s website:  one about the recent census; the other, MMI.

(See here)

Luz says, “The leadership and support that The Patterson Foundation provides in our region is exceptional.  Behind many successful, important initiatives is Debra Jacobs, encouraging us to collaborate and look at best practices.  A role model and mentor, Debra is an amazing leader.”

The following interview with Debra also shines a light on TPF, as it, too, celebrates its 10th anniversary—proving that “the world moves at the speed of change, and change happens at the speed of trust.” 

As is evident by Debra’s examples, TPF helps individuals, organizations, and communities thrive because of five C’s:  Caring, Connecting, Collaborating, Contributing, and Creating—not unlike what UnidosNow continues to foster. 

Describe TPF’s relationship with UnidosNow.  

First, let me provide some context about The Patterson Foundation.  Rather than traditional grant making, we don’t fund organizations; instead we invite them, and they choose to work with us.  In that way, we foster wide participation—believing that individuals, organizations, and communities are the best architects for their own future. 

Through our collaboration—whether with Margin & Mission Ignition initiative or The Giving Challenge—UnidosNow personifies its mission.  

Let me give you a few examples, starting with MMI.  We may start with 100 organizations participating in learning labs.  With each lab, the number of participants dwindles—indicating which organizations can develop a plan to do earned income. 

Five characteristics for developing this plan are critical to igniting thrivability:  leadership, willingness, readiness, capacity, and culture.

I’ve now described UnidosNow:

  1. An incredible, “award-winning” staff and board leadership team—wanting to strengthen the organization and lift the potential of others.
  1. Willingness to look at new ideas—passionate about exploring ways to improve the lives of those they serve—providing avenues for individuals to reach their potential.  
  1. Ready, even though they might face challenges, such as COVID-19.    
  1. Capacity to achieve their mission. 
  1. Culture to grow and change

Always looking to work with others, Unidos Now shows up “to be in the conversation.”  It’s evident when we do a “pop-up” neighborhood event—a surprise visit to a laundromat where TPF  pays for laundry services that day—UnidosNow comes with a joyful heart, which I believe comes from the leadership setting the tone that they care and want to create new futures. 

Debra Jacobs, President and CEO of The Patterson Foundation.

What has impressed you most about UnidosNow?

What has impressed me most is that over the years UnidosNow has focused on what can they do with excellence—bumped up when Luz came on board.  I applaud her style and integrity.  Her honesty is a magnet for volunteer leadership.  

Achievements of their college-bound teens, now shared by elementary and middle-school children—and their families—continue to improve our communities.  

Another noteworthy attribute of UnidosNow is how they realized that when the pandemic hit, they had to pause and rethink their MMI solid business plan based on marketing to raising money for Beyond College Now (BCN).    

Originally, their program was intended to help all Sarasota-Manatee students gain admission to “best-value” colleges.  By offering college-advising services for a fee, the nonprofit had planned to share their college-preparation expertise—reinvesting the proceeds in their core mission:  to empower Latino students to succeed through higher education. 

Rather than plowing ahead, they’ve learned to adjust their focus because not everything works the way you envision.  And as we speak, UnidosNow is demonstrating their innovative skills—not stymied by an obstacle—demonstrating forward thinking. 

What have been some challenges UnidosNow has had to face?  

As with any startup, financial stability is key.  Ideas are no good without money.  In the beginning, UnidosNow sought supporters and grants.  But it was a struggle until Luz came on board, leading the nonprofit toward incremental successes, credibility, and visibility in the community.  

UnidosNow has proved itself repeatedly that it exemplifies a strong organization.  We believe that their collaboration through the Margin & Mission Ignition initiative has also boosted their status, even during COVID – 19.

Besides Margin & Mission Ignition, what are other examples of TPF collaboration?

We’re also proud that we have matched donations given to UnidosNow during every Giving Challenge, sponsored by the Community Foundation of Sarasota County—proving the nonprofit’s determination to raise money to better the lives of individuals and strengthen the community.  

Another recent endeavor was during one of the many Seasons of Sharing:  support organizations participating in a joint philanthropic partnership between the Herald Tribune Media Group and Community Foundation of Sarasota County.  TPF catalyzes funding from donors to help support the most vulnerable.  Money is then distributed through organizations that are part of the network, UnidosNow being one.

To celebrate this latest Season, we invited those organizations to a Zoom get together, awarding one-time honorariums to all participants, showing our appreciation.         

How does UnidosNow encourage learning and sharing and help fortify this community?

During our knowledge-sharing workshops with other nonprofits, such as TPF’s Thrive and Dine, UnidosNow inevitably is asked to be a presenter for a particular theme.  Always knocking it out of the park, they create a beehive of people who go over to speak with their representatives.  

UnidosNow is committed to learning.  Luz and her team are always about what is the “best way we can do this?”  In return, UnidosNow is becoming the go-to place for other organizations who want to know what they should do.  

Because of their expertise, UnidosNow has become the “oracle” where others seek answers.  A case in point is the recent census, where other communities “borrowed” UnidosNow best practices.  TPF worked with the Herald-Tribune to create a Spanish primer and coloring book related to the census, which UnidosNow shared, helping Latin communities in four counties:  Sarasota, Manatee, DeSoto, and Charlotte.

Helping people understand, Luz and her team build relationships—contributing to a stronger community—affirming that everyone has potential.  In return, UnidosNow has earned the respect of the region.

How can UnidosNow continue to contribute to community?

As they mature, UnidosNow must invest in themselves. There must be continuous improvement, never losing sight of their mission—being an exemplar—all for the purpose of improving community.  
The next 10 years will provide that opportunity for UnidosNow, an organization that represents what is possible.

Welcoming & Empowering New Neighbors Builds a Stronger Community-wide Family: UnidosNow’s Parent Leadership Program

By Marnie Howell, Parent Leadership, Parent Leadership Director

Imagine a class where adult learners convene to gain skills that help them better navigate, and contribute to, their new country and community. Their countries of origin are Brazil, Chile, Guatemala, Japan, Jordan, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru, Ukraine, and Venezuela. They join UnidosNow’s Parent Leadership program to learn language and life skills needed in the U.S. to help propel them, and their families, to success. Our parent leaders reflect the multicultural quilt that is our nation.

Our Parent Leadership program at Gocio Elementary School in December 2019.

“How do you say hello in Arabic?” “Why do you call your child papacito?” “What are avocado leaves good for?” These are questions that pop up in class. Often, there are three languages going back and forth, including English. Enthusiasm and body language fill in the gaps.

This pandemic has opened-up new and different opportunities for interactions. UnidosNow is no longer in the classroom itself, but operates virtually and, if needed, in person, masked- up and following CDC guidelines. In the spring of this year, many of our families found themselves without jobs, confronting financial crises that impacted their ability to cover rent, utilities, and food. UnidosNow, in collaboration with community partners, stepped in with a temporary emergency fund. Additionally, one of those partners, Harvest House, provided boxes of nutritious food for our families over many weeks.

Realizing that some of our families had no transportation to receive food boxes, nine individuals within our organization, volunteered to be drivers. However, more than food arrived at the doorsteps of those who could not drive. New friendships were forged, as in the case of Adriana and Kateryna. Although both were participants in our Parent Leadership program, they had never met in person. Adriana, who was a pediatric nurse in Venezuela, was eager to help with any deliveries. Kateryna, an elementary teacher in Ukraine, was grateful to receive some of those deliveries. In her words: “I have an interesting, wonderful life. I would never have thought I would be part of a Latin American family.” It is difficult to put into words all the aspects of our Parent Leadership Program, but one thing is for sure: it’s not just about learning English.

One of the last Parent Leadership meetings of 2020.

Through the program, parents build trust and community with UnidosNow and among each other. The program recognizes and fosters the parents’ social capital, which emphasize, and draws upon, all of the strengths and abilities they have brought with them to their new community. So, while they have the opportunity to learn about local community resources and the US education system, they also share their gifts and talents with their new neighbors and lend peer support to other parents.

And, as we are living Life in the Time of Coronavirus, it’s more apparent than ever that we, as a community, need, value, and deeply benefit from good neighbors!

Shared Empowerment: The Partnership Between UnidosNow and the Community Foundation of Sarasota County

By Roxie Jerde

Just as UnidosNow is turning 10-years old this year, so too is its partnership with the Community Foundation of Sarasota County. Our two community-minded organizations were brought together by a shared vision to empower families and individuals across generations to reach their full potential, and since then our partnership has only grown stronger and more interconnected.

As an early adopter of our 2-Gen philosophy, UnidosNow continues to be an invaluable partner in creating cycles of opportunities for children and their families. This genuine care for our community is also reflected in UnidosNow’s work within our Season of Sharing network, helping support our most vulnerable neighbors in crisis with immediate basic needs as a way to regain stability and security.

I am always proud to mention that UnidosNow was one of the first organizations to join The Giving Partner and participate in our inaugural Giving Challenge, a tradition it has enthusiastically continued with award-winning campaigns throughout our last seven challenges. In our most recent challenge – the 2020 Giving Challenge – UnidosNow received $283,000 in gifts from more than 330 donors, a campaign that was recognized with four distinct awards: Best Nonprofit Partnership with Healthy Start Coalition of Sarasota County; Best Board Member Engagement; Best Use of Social Media; and, the second Best Overall Campaign as a medium-sized organization. All these distinctions culminated in UnidosNow celebrating a third-place finale on our leaderboard, out of 686 local participating nonprofit organizations.

And donors have resonated with these efforts: to date, UnidosNow has been awarded more than $1,328,000 in grants to further their causes, including The Giving Challenge. Just within the last year, UnidosNow has transformed this generous funding into multi-generational opportunities for connection and empowerment, from supporting families through its Parent Leadership Program at Tuttle, Gocio, Emma E. Booker and Alta Vista Elementary Schools to addressing virtual needs – of students and parents alike – that have arisen during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even civic engagement and voter registration are part and parcel of UnidosNow’s work, as seen during its Mi Voto, Mi Futuro campaign that was supported by the Athena Progressive Giving Circle of the Community Foundation.

All of us at the Community Foundation want to congratulate UnidosNow and its incredible board, staff, and volunteers for reaching this significant milestone. Cheers to 10-years of making a difference, and here’s to the next 10 and many, many more!