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UnidosNow Begins with “U”: Interviewing Attorney CJ Czaia

By Sandy Chase

The first letter of UnidosNow—“U”—is critical to the organization’s success.  Although the name is pronounced as “oo nee dohs,” in the English alphabet U is pronounced like the word “You.”

Ten years ago, Christopher John Czaia Centeno (CJ) Czaia—a co-founder/funder—realized that promoting the Latino community began with “You”:  

  • You,” the Latino Sarasota-Manatee residents and businesses, foundations, volunteers, and other donors.
  • You,” the “Youth.” 

CJ’s mantra has always been “oración con acción” which translates to prayer with action:  Latinos must make their voices heard—participate in their community and in the political process by voting and educating themselves, for example.  

Latino parents must also encourage their children to strive for academic and career success.  In fact, CJ is passionate about empowering Latino youth because they are the core of positive change—improving their community here in Sarasota-Manatee, and the U.S. 

It is not only parents who must instill the value of education, but the entire organization and its mentors must promote this most important catalyst for change.

Believing that leadership will excel if he keeps a low profile, CJ continues to donate his time as a board member and helps fund UnidosNow—ensuring the continued existence and direction of the organization.

Saying that it’s more rewarding to give than to receive, CJ wants to leave this world feeling that he’s helped others achieve something great.

If history repeats itself, UnidosNow won’t let him down.

What prompted you to assemble the organization that founded UnidosNow?

I attended a church service where congregants were praying for immigration reform.  It was clear that people were willing to pray for change but weren’t willing to take the initiative to make the change themselves.  

I was disturbed that Latinos didn’t and—unfortunately—don’t participate in the political system—allowing others to control their lives.  The Latino community had to get involved in this great American machine—demanding they have a seat at the political table.

Jolted out of sleep, I realized that something had to be done.  Without action, prayer won’t achieve immigration reform.  If you’re a person of faith, ask G-d to give you the strength to make the change you want to see.  It’s up to you.

To make a difference, we also had to empower youth, although originally, UnidosNow was an activist group—fighting for immigration reform.  

What role did you play in the beginning?

I didn’t want to repeat mistakes of failed Latino organizations because of infighting amongst board members.  In fact, I inspired the writing of and financed the song, “Pa’lante,” encouraging Latinos to come together for the better.  For me, a small board—whose members could be the checks and balances on leadership—was ideal.

I was impressed by Sarasota Mayor Kelly Kirschner and his staunch support of disenfranchised Latinos.  His Peace Corps experience, intelligence, and exceptional ability to articulate convinced me that I needed to recruit and pay him to be the first executive director.  I saw him as a catalyst. 

How has your background contributed to the success of UnidosNow?

Born in Ceylon (known today as Sri Lanka) to a Nicaraguan mother and an American father, who was a State Department officer, I spent many of my early years living in Africa and Latin America.  Traveling around the world, I was brought up to appreciate diverse cultures—especially Latino, with its food, history, and music.    

Closer to home, I was an advocate for immigration reform as the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) chairman of the Democratic Party of Manatee County during the Obama-Biden years.  

I dealt with such political and legal issues like fighting injustice.  I’ve also been honored to be a guest at the White House and attend the Democratic convention of Florida as an invited speaker.

I’ve always had a large Latino clientele at my law practice, and I’ve been successful in recruiting many Latinos to my firm who have flourished in their own light—rewarding me personally.

As part of the UnidosNow triumvirate, with Kelly Kirschner and Luis Eduardo Baron, what challenges did you face?

Our biggest challenge was trying to get people to understand that when one group doesn’t succeed, then the whole group fails.

From Latinos, we had to deal with apathy towards political involvement.  Perhaps, more important, most parents expected that their children would find a job after graduating from high school.  College wasn’t a goal.

We had to convince Anglos that we’re all in this together.  We had to get buy-in from Sarasota-Manatee that student success lays the foundation for the community and our nation.

My personal challenge was—and still is—keeping a low profile at UnidosNow:  I didn’t want to negatively affect the organization or drive away people who didn’t share my political ideologies.

What have been the rewards?

Rewards have been personal and professional—many are intangible—but, nonetheless, invaluable.  

Meeting students and hearing how they’ve been inspired to become something great.  Listening to their stories of how each individual has been positively affected by the organization.  It’s rewarding seeing the members/staff—unselfishly giving their time and effort—bringing the UnidosNow vision into fruition. 

Over the years, we’ve been successful in recruiting outstanding executive directors. 

As a board member and past board chairman, what are some of your goals for UnidosNow?

A crucial goal is to continue promoting UnidosNow as a community organization—ensuring its viability through donations and exceptional executive directors like Luz Corcuera.  We want to continue programs that empower our youth and their families so their voices are heard.  

Another objective is to raise money so we can continue seeking out the brightest, most dedicated, influential staff, and surround ourselves with staunch advocates like executive directors and volunteers.  We envision partnerships that will allow the organization to grow so it can aid the needs of its people and the Sarasota-Manatee community at large.

A more immediate goal is to celebrate—with the Sarasota Orchestra at the Van Wezel—our 10 years.  We want to mix the cultures of both the symphony and mariachi—brainstorming ways to create a virtual event in 2021.

How do you see UnidosNow evolving?

We didn’t foresee COVID.  But we’re resolute in coming to the aid of those less fortunate.   UnidosNow has had to step in to help those who don’t have many resources, such as those who are most vulnerable.  Our summer mentoring program and our COVID resources posted on our website are just a few examples of how we’re there for our people NOW.

Strengthening UnidosNow: Interviewing Kathy Schersten, Board Member and Mentor

By Sandy Chase

Kathy Schersten, UnidosNow Board Member.

UnidosNow looks forward to celebrating its next 10 years–indebted to those who have supported this nonprofit from its inception.

Continuing to foster the success of this organization, serving Sarasota and Manatee counties, Kathy Schersten sheds light on the commitment of so many, especially the initial board of Kelly Kirschner, CJ Czaia, and Luis Eduardo Baron.

For her and others, involvement was—and is—crucial. As a board member and former teacher, Kathy is determined to strengthen the lives of local Latinos, especially through education. In her role as board member and mentor, she advocates for the “American Dream.”

Kathy shares the ways in which UnidosNow exemplifies how perseverance, vision, and commitment have created a viable organization—continuing to empower Latinos and their families and bettering the community.

UnidosNow is creating the FUTURE for so many NOW!

What prompted you to get involved with UnidosNow?

I had to get involved when I heard of its plans, its mission, and its focus on the needs of local Hispanics. When I moved to Sarasota in the late 1970s, the Hispanic community was relatively small: St. Martha’s Church had a Spanish language mass each Sunday, with an average 25 participants.

By 2010, there were large numbers of Hispanics in church, in schools, and as homeowners.

As the founders began to publicize their educational objectives, my husband and I reached out to support their goals, first as donors, eager to spread the word of the opportunities UnidosNow was offering.

The original board, comprising Kelly, CJ, and Luis, formed the direction and the initial activities, creating a resource for Latinos to make a serious presence in Sarasota. It was past due, and we were all waiting—wanting a push in the right direction for these residents, taxpayers, and families.

UnidosNow provided it.

What role did you play in the beginning?

In the early days of UnidosNow, I was unable to take a large role with this incredible, much-needed organization because of family health issues. I kept in touch and directed other supporters and families from St. Jude Catholic Church to explore and use the UnidosNow programs.

It was easy to promote because Hispanics were eager to find ways to reach that famous “American Dream.” We spread the word quickly to the media, especially through Luis Eduardo Baron’s two publications (7Días, La Guía), church bulletins, and via the network of other nonprofits, such as the Women’s Resource Center, Girls Inc. of Sarasota County.

How has your background contributed to the success of UnidosNow?

I cannot say my background had anything to do with the success of UnidosNow, but it was my academic experiences and passion for teaching that drew me to the organization. My undergraduate study included a year and half at the University of Mexico in Mexico City. Then I taught school in Colombia for a year; eight years in Caracas, Venezuela; and a year in Madrid.

My students were not low income: their parents were educated; their futures were bright. This was not the same scene in the barrios of the countries where I lived. As an educator, I gravitated to the academic plans of UnidosNow, reaching out to first-generation students to give them a chance at higher education.

As a board member and past president of the local Hispanic-American Association, I continue to connect with many in the Latino community—on all levels—encouraging civic involvement and exploring immigration issues.

The founders of UnidosNow took steps to provide the tools for advancement to this vibrant community. Most importantly, these visionaries showed they care.

What are the rewards?

I share the excitement of students and their parents as they navigate the process to college acceptance—receiving scholarships and additional financial assistance. I’m impressed by mentees who rave how grateful they are for UnidosNow and its mentors.

As an UnidosNow board member, there is great pride in being part of this outstanding organization. We have proudly earned the support of donors, foundations, schools, elected officials, and the community at large.

As a board member, what are some of your goals for UnidosNow?

They include preserving its status in the community as the model agency for Latino growth. Other goals include continuing to serve the young people in our various programs–understanding these students’ backgrounds and needs. I feel confident that neither the board nor the staff will alter its long-term mission of educating, elevating, and integrating.

The leadership of UnidosNow has a proven record of meeting the needs of those who rely on the organization for guidance and support—a practice that must continue.

Celebrating Our Heritage this Challenging Year

This year full of challenges has also brought reasons to celebrate, and some of those reasons lie in our scholars and alumni and their achievements. We were happy to celebrate this year’s Hispanic Heritage Month highlighting them, and hearing from our local leaders who are making an impact in our community.

You can enjoy the full program we hosted on Tuesday, October 13th, in the videos below.

Thank you to all that joined us that evening, and a special thank you to our incredible supporters:

Relive the celebration below, and see you next time!

Hispanic Heritage Celebration Full program

Eckerd College President Damian J. Fernandez’s Remarks

Journalist Mónica Vélez’s Message to our Scholars

It’s FAFSA Time!

FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is the form that high-school seniors and undergraduate students need to fill out to get federal financial aid to help pay for college. Each year, over 13 million students who file the FAFSA get more than $120 billion in grants, work-study, and low-interest loans from the U.S. Department of Education. Many states and colleges use FAFSA data to award their own financial aid.

UnidosNow, in collaboration with the School District of Manatee County and other REACH Manatee partners, is hosting a series of online workshops where students and their parents can receive personalized assistance to complete the FAFSA. The safety of the students and volunteers is our priority, that is why this year we have transitioned the workshops to an online format. The first online FAFSA workshop was held on October 3 and it was a success! Ten trained volunteers assisted eleven students from various schools in Sarasota and Manatee counties.

The upcoming workshops will be from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on:

  • October 13, 20, and 27
  • November 3, 10, and 17
  • December 1

Students and parents in need of help to complete the FAFSA can attend any of the sessions by following this link.

Those who are interested in volunteering should visit this site.

If you have questions, please contact Esther Garcia, Education Coordinator, at [email protected] or at 941-301-8292.

A Progress Survey Show The Success of Our Programs

In September, we invited our Future Leaders Academy 53 Barancik Scholars to take a progress survey. Their answers is what motivates us to keep our work going.

Please find below the answers to some of the key questions the students were asked. You will see that the results speak for themselves.

  • Level of knowledge about the college application process
  • Level of confidence about getting accepted to the students’ best-fit college

UnidosNow’s Future Leaders Academy is much more than a college prep and career readiness program. We empower our Barancik scholars to dream big, believe in themselves, build their leadership skills, and give back to the community.

Our gratitude to Charles & Margerie Barancik Foundation for their partnership and generous support.

A New Academic Year During a World Pandemic

Last school year was a challenge for all our students, when the closing of schools in March brought them home to take classes online. The start of the new school year is bringing new challenges to our scholars, who are either studying from home or are on campus, and we wanted to hear directly from them about their experiences. Follow the links below to read their articles:

Leonela Tase Sueiro, FLA Alumni Class of 2018, The George Washington University

Karla Trejo, FLA Alumni from the Class of 2020, Florida Gulf Coast University

FLA Alumna Leonela Tase Sueiro Speaks About Her Online Classes at The George Washington University

I’m Leonela Tase Sueiro, and this year I’m a sophomore at The George Washington University—fully online and from home!

I got a taste of what virtual college would be like last spring semester, when we were sent home indefinitely after Spring Break due to the pandemic. However, this semester, since my school mandated that we all do virtual school from home as it would not be physically open, I had to acclimate to an online classroom and make it work.

At first it was difficult, as a house with six people—three generations—is hardly the ideal place for two college students to attend classes daily. But my entire family was dedicated to helping us through the process, so we went out and bought desks, desk chairs, lamps, and all the materials needed to create the right setting.

Now, since my sister and I share a room, she is my classmate, too—that’s a plus! Although, it’s definitely challenging when our schedules overlap and we have to be listening to our instructor and to each other speak at the same time, so in those occasions, we take turns doing class from the kitchen table.

Every time one issue is resolved, another arises. But it’s in these moments that we remind ourselves that we are not the only ones going through this hardship—our own teachers sometimes miss class because they cannot get BlackBoard to work, or forget how to use Zoom, or are in a different time zone.

The point is though, we are all learning more as every day passes, whether from class itself or from the hurdles we face. As long as we can all remain patient with ourselves, each other, and the systems supporting us through these changes, we can prevail.

FLA Alumna Karla Trejo Speaks about Returning to Class at FGCU

Florida Gulf Coast University allowed us the option of staying home instead of living on campus. However, I believe if we had already signed the housing agreement and if we decided not to live on campus after a certain date, we would have had to pay a fee. 

Right now, I feel a bit annoyed and nervous as the positive cases continue to increase each week since school started here. Plus, there are two fraternities that have been suspended for hosting a large off-campus party and now a sorority might be suspended as well since they attended a party that administration found out about.  

So far my classes are going really well. I have four in-person classes and two online classes that meet via Zoom or Canvas Conference. I have managed to maintain my grades so far and I’ve already had my midterm exams so I’m hoping for all good grades back! 

I go to campus every day not only for my in-person classes, but to print papers for a few of my classes and I work on campus at the Chick-Fil-A. So, on certain days I’m here on campus for about 7 hours and others I’m only here for 4 hours. 

There’s definitely a mix of reactions from students and the staff. There are students that still walk around without their masks on or they don’t have it on properly. Even some adults that I’ve noticed don’t wear a mask at all as they walk around campus which frustrates me since they’re the ones that should also be respectful of their coworkers who are already taking a chance to teach us in person. 

One thing I miss about being back home is definitely my friends. I would say my family, but I’m rather independent and talk to them whenever I have the chance and they visit me sometimes. With my friends it’s a bit tougher since they have their own class schedules and some of them work so it isn’t as easy to plan when we can hangout anymore. Oh, and I definitely miss my dogs too!

Get Ready to Vote Early!

By Leilani Monterde, Student Ambassador, Mi Voto, Mi Futuro Campaign

Lelani Monterde shows proudly her VOTE t-shirt.

In light of the pandemic, many people are looking for safe, socially-distanced methods of voting. While there will be social-distancing protocols occurring on Election Day, early voting is another reliable way to cast your ballot. Early voting in Florida is open from October 19th through November 1st. It’s also a great option for those who are very busy; all you need is to find some time on any one of these days to vote. 

To vote early, you don’t have to go to a designated polling location, like on Election Day, but rather there are various early voting sites in your county that you can choose from. All early voting locations in Manatee and Sarasota counties are open from 8:30am to 6:30pm. Specific location information for each county is listed below.

These are the Early Voting Sites for Manatee County residents, along with their addresses:

  • Supervisor of Elections Office: 600 301 Blvd. W. #108, Bradenton
  • Palmetto Library: 923 6th St W, Palmetto
  • Rocky Bluff Library: 6750 U.S. Hwy 301, Ellenton
  • Lakewood Ranch Town Hall: 8175 Lakewood Ranch Blvd., Lakewood Ranch
  • Manatee County Utilities Administrative Offices: 4410 66th St. W., Bradenton
  • FL Department of Transportation Operation Center (FDOT): 14000 SR 64 E., Bradenton

*For more information regarding early voting in Manatee County visit this Supervisor of Elections Office website here.

These are the Early Voting Sites for Sarasota County residents:

  • Supervisor of Elections Office in Sarasota: Terrace Building, 2001 Adams Lane, Sarasota
  • Supervisor of Elections Office in North Port: Biscayne Plaza, 13640 Tamiami Trail, North Port
  • Supervisor of Elections Office in Venice: RL Anderson Building, 4000 Tamiami Trail S., Venice
  • Sarasota Square Mall: 8201 S Tamiami Trail, Sarasota
  • North Sarasota Library: 28091 Newtown Blvd, Sarasota
  • Fruitville Library: 100 Apex Rd, Sarasota
  • Shannon Staub Library: 4675 Career Lane, North Port
  • Bee Ridge Park: 4430 S Lockwood Ridge Rd, Sarasota

*For more information regarding early voting in Sarasota County visit this Supervisor of Elections Office website here.

If you requested a Vote by Mail (VBM) ballot from your Supervisor of Elections, you can also drop off your completed ballot (with your signature and date in the designated sections of the envelope) at any of these locations during early voting.  If you are mailing in your VBM ballot, remember to place TWO stamps on the envelope. 

Pick the place and time that works for you, and make sure that you bring a current ID that includes a photo of yourself and your signature. Then you’ll be all set to vote!

Stay safe and remember: make your voice heard. This election season, vote!

For more information regarding the voting process visit our campaign page here.