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Manatee Community Foundation Strives To Help UnidosNow Move Forward: Strengthening and Enhancing Our Community

By Sandy Chase

The UnidosNow of 2010 was much different from what it is today.  The philanthropy of such organizations as Manatee Community Foundation (MCF) has enabled the nonprofit to define its mission—refocusing on the future of Latino in this community.

A grant from the Knight Donor Advised Fund of the MCF supported the Future Leaders Academy—helping to create the current robust educational program for adolescents and their parents.

Beholden to MCF, Luz Corcuera says, “Over the years—thanks to their leadership and generous support, we have been able to work closely on several initiatives—striving to make a difference for those who need it most.”  

Some of those programs to which Luz is referring reflects how the MCF-UnidosNow partnership has:

  • Strengthened the signature FLA—helping college-bound participants realize their educational goals. 
  • Established the first FLAG (Future Leaders Academy for elementary-school Girls) in Manatee County.
  • Introduced FLAM ((Future Leaders Academy for Middle School). 
  • Supported the local college access network (REACH Manatee), which bridges gaps to help low-income students achieve their highest potential, educate parents about the value of college and the trades, and improve FAFSA completion rates.
  • Helped create an emergency fund in collaboration with local foundations and donors.
A REACH Manatee event at MCF’s Community Room.

MCF Executive Director Susie Bowie says, “UnidosNow is well-known as a valuable catalyst of change in Southwest Florida.  

During her interview, Susie stressed how UnidosNow is a role model for other nonprofits.

As one of the first foundations that supported UnidosNow, why did your organization choose to assist the new nonprofit and its executive director?

Manatee Community Foundation’s Knight Fund awarded early multi-year grants to UnidosNow, attracted by its unique focus on shifting educational opportunity and changing the story of generational poverty for participating Hispanic/Latino students. 

From the beginning, UnidosNow’s approach of working in partnership with churches, nonprofits, colleges, universities, and the school districts was an appealing way to utilize existing resources, while adding elements of advocacy, cultural competency, and multigenerational connections.  We feel proud of the distinction to be an early partner. 

What did that support look like?

Manatee Community Foundation’s support enabled UnidosNow to boost Youth Collaborative on College Preparation (YCCP), a then new and unparalleled collaborative community effort in which UnidosNow partnered with Take Stock in Children, USF Sarasota-Manatee, and Sarasota and Manatee County school boards to pool resources for college guidance and scholarship dollars to increase college success and graduation rate of 500 first-generation, low-income students (majority Hispanic). 

At that time, there was no other outreach program of this kind building our community’s and schools’ ability to prepare this student population for college and ensure that families understood it was within reach of their students.  That distinction remains today. 

Susie Bowie, MCF Executive Director.

By educating students, parents, and guardians on the critical issues of college preparation and financial literacy, the goal of UnidosNow was to change the system—one student and family at a time.

How is it different from current collaboration?

MCF currently partners with UnidosNow on similar education initiatives—now with an extensive history of success and expanded programs that reach students as early as elementary school.  The proof of its success is in the faces and stories of the many dedicated students who have participated in UnidosNow programs who are now pursuing their dreams.

In recent years, UnidosNow’s leadership of REACH Manatee, our local college access network, has led to a greater focus on a central community goal to prepare both traditional students and adults for college and workforce readiness, meeting the demands of tomorrow for Manatee County. 

UnidosNow approached partners to start the formal partnerships four years ago and has grown participation and buy-in from leaders of local colleges and universities, nonprofits, foundations, and the School District of Manatee County. 

How does UnidosNow continue to contribute to our community?

While UnidosNow continues in its specific mission to build postsecondary attainment for Hispanic/Latino youth, it has become a voice for the Hispanic/Latino community in many ways. 

Through trusted leadership and its long-standing relationships with families, UnidosNow is frequently called upon for insights that can make grant making in Manatee and Sarasota counties more effective. 

Its work throughout the pandemic has provided key insights that have helped grant makers reach individuals with basic needs—and some of these delivery methods have rested specifically with UnidosNow—proven as a flexible and highly responsive organization. 

I remember many people asking, “Who/what is UnidosNow?” after it climbed to the top of the leaderboard in the first Giving Challenge years ago. Now the nonprofit is well known among those who support education and opportunity in Southwest Florida.

Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation Interview: Investing in Leadership and Strengthening Families

By Sandy Chase

The Future Leaders Academy has evolved over the years into the community-recognized Future Leaders Academy (FLA) Barancik Scholars.  Because of Barancik Foundation’s leadership, partnership, and unwavering support, FLA continues to flourish—turning lives around as first-generation students succeed in their postsecondary education—prerequisites to their career goals—ultimately strengthening our community and nation.

According to Luz Corcuera, UnidosNow executive director, “Barancik Foundation’s partnership has been instrumental in our success and ability to empower our hard-working and talented students and their families—promoted by visionaries Charles and Margery Barancik.” 

UnidosNow and other community nonprofits have fought hard against the onslaught of the pandemic—thanks to Barancik Foundation’s COVID -19 Response Initiative—a joint venture with Gulf Coast Community Foundation—another staunch UnidosNow ally.  

The Latino nonprofit has adapted and innovated in order to respond to these challenging circumstances. (See https://unidosnow.org/covid-19-resources-2/)

Barancik Foundation President and CEO Teri A Hansen.

Barancik Foundation President and CEO Teri A Hansen set aside time to exemplify how its partnership with UnidosNow helps bolster the nonprofit’s mission.  As Barancik Foundation is proud to say, “Together, our work echoes louder.”

When and why did your organization choose to assist the nonprofit and its executive director?

Chuck Barancik built his companies’ success through sound strategic planning and investment in leadership.  In much the same way, our board of directors identifies organizations who follow the same wisdom.  It was hard to ignore the trajectory of this small but mighty nonprofit who was making incredible strides in lifting up young leaders.  After a meeting with Luz in 2018, we made our first investment.  The partnership was born.

What did that support look like?

We made an initial investment of $75,000 to support the Future Leaders Academy.  The comprehensive college-prep program includes one-on-one mentoring and assistance completing scholarship and financial-aid applications.  The support was initially to help supplement the program and focus on the students who were currently enrolled.

How was that support different from your current collaboration?

UnidosNow has always utilized a multigenerational approach to creating opportunities for their scholars.  Since that first grant in 2018, we have provided almost $700,000 in funding to bolster the program’s effectiveness.  While the focus is still on the scholars, increased and flexible funding has allowed UnidosNow to expand their efforts in assisting students’ families to help with economic stability and success.  The grants also allow UnidosNow to increase their recruitment efforts and follow the scholars further into their college and professional years.

How does UnidosNow continue to contribute to our community?

We’ve seen firsthand how UnidosNow is changing lives and opening doors, and the organization has stepped up in big ways to address the needs that COVID brought.  The organization has become a central hub for families to reach out for help and support if they have experienced lost wages or housing.  Additionally, we were proud to see some of our scholars participate in efforts to promote public health advice as well as increase young Latino voters’ participation in the electoral process.  

One of the many things we love about Luz and her staff is that they are problem solvers.  No matter what request comes up, it is always a matter of finding a solution. There’s never a “no” or a “maybe.”  Luz has been a champion for many, and I think we sleep better at night knowing there are people like her in our community.

A Mentor for All Ages: Interviewing Hector Tejeda

By Sandy Chase

“Dreaming big”—the foundation upon which UnidosNow thrives—captures Hector Tejeda.  Readily identifying with the organization’s youth, Hector continues to mentor college-bound students—providing the best opportunities for success.  He’s also been a role model for UnidosNow staff.

Echoing many community leaders, Kelly Kirschner says of UnidosNow’s director of education initiatives:  “UnidosNow has been transformed thanks to Hector’s leadership and contributions.”  

Kelly adds, “Hector fostered an environment that gave UnidosNow students an Ivy League, best-in-class experience in preparing for college.”

Future Leaders Academy (FLA) Barancik Scholars—many who struggle because of social and economic obstacles—have benefited from Hector’s inspiring mentoring and willingness to do whatever it takes to support them.  

  • Last year, for example, he drove a student to and from Flagler College in St. Augustine for scholarship interviews, resulting in thousands of dollars in much needed financial aid. 
  • More recently, he assisted a FLA member in preparing for a virtual interview with Harvard (his graduate alma mater).

But Hector’s mentoring hasn’t been reserved only for college-bound students, as past director of education initiatives and associate executive director, Catalina Kaiyoorawongs attests.

“I hired Hector as a part-time advisor in 2014.  Within a short time, it was evident that Hector had a gift for inspiring others—critical to the UnidosNow organization.”

Capturing how mentoring is part of Hector’s DNA, she says, “I trusted his judgment and advice—the essence of a mentor.  He inspired me to get my master’s in business administration and to dream big.  He always pushed us to dream big.—not just the students.  We are indeed the Dream Team.” 

Amanda Rico Mattox, Lucero Guzmán, Luz Corcuera, Hector Tejeda, Beatriz Paniego-Béjar, and Juan Arcila.

“Dreaming big” is reflected by the well-established, structured FLA mentoring program—supported by the staff, educational consultants, volunteers, and community foundations.  Mentor and mentee workshops and other dedicated programs enable students, parents, and mentors to think big as well.

FLA Barancik Scholars continue to earn scholarships—being accepted to such schools as Cornell, Yale, Johns Hopkins, and Barnard College (Columbia University).  Closer to home, FLA alumni also attend Florida State University, University of Florida, and University of South Florida—some mentoring younger kids, especially during the pandemic.

UnidosNow has positioned itself as a role model for this and future generations—as Hector has proved that by “dreaming big,” dreams get bigger. 

What has been your relationship with UnidosNow?  

I joined UnidosNow in March 2014 as a part-time advisor.  A few months later, I was asked to take on the role of executive director, which I held until December 2015 before retiring.  Luz Corcuera, my successor, convinced me to return in May 2016 as director of education initiatives.

What prompted you to seek a position at UnidosNow? 

Having moved to Sarasota in 2013, I noted a posting for an outreach- and education-program specialist at UnidosNow.  I was excited about the prospect of working for a community organization whose core mission is to support the Latino community, especially with its focus on furthering educational opportunities for Latino youth.

After spending three years as an MBA career advisor at the Wharton School (University of Pennsylvania) and the prior 30 years working for such world-class companies as Merck, Pfizer, and Deloitte, I sought out UnidosNow because I wanted to give back to the community.  

I‘m fortunate to have had such a rewarding career, but I could not have done it without the support of so many people along the way.  Joining UnidosNow was the best way I could think of to give back.  

How has the organization flourished?

The hallmark of UnidosNow’s positioning in the community has been and will continue to be our ability to gain the trust of the Latino population and, as a result, drive grassroots efforts to improve the community.  Our founders had a vision of empowering Latinos to achieve the American dream, starting with an emphasis on immigration reform.  

Soon thereafter, Catalina was tasked with launching a new education initiative:  FLA.  With virtually no budget, she recruited the first class of students in the summer of 2013.  Working with Robin Groelle, a local educational consultant, they put together a curriculum that set the foundation for our innovative programming today.  

To support our longer-term vision of social integration for the Latino community, the board agreed that we needed to focus on our core competence of education attainment, more specifically, college prep, and then expand gradually to broader integration initiatives and community services.  

This attention allowed us to build our credibility among key constituencies, including high schools and local colleges, community foundations, and other youth-serving nonprofits.  

With the hiring of Luz Corcuera in January 2016, UnidosNow flourished in ways that none of us had ever imagined.  Our services expanded to reach younger children and their families, but still with a focus on education and college prep.  

UnidosNow FLA Class of 2016 on a college tour.

Also, we started to reach out to broader student populations, including students planning to attend two-year and technical colleges.  And now we are looking to expand our presence in middle schools and increase our support of our students currently in college.

How has your background contributed to its success?

Originally from Guatemala, I was raised by my teenage mother, who at times had to place me and my brother in foster care.  As a first-generation, low-income student, I saw firsthand how education could change lives—as it has done mine.  In many respects, I could be the poster child for UnidosNow.

With amazing support from the community, I was able to attend Marist College, where I graduated with an accounting degree.  I then landed a position with Deloitte in NYC and received my CPA certification.  Soon thereafter, I was accepted into Harvard Business School and earned an MBA in general management.  My 30-year career was devoted to the pharmaceutical industry in marketing, finance, strategic planning, and management.

In addition to my own college and career journey, I developed a good understanding of the college recruiting and application process, as I guided my children into good-fit schools:  Princeton and Colgate universities.  

Also, after retiring from corporate America, I spent a few years as a career advisor at Wharton’s MBA program, where I built on my understanding of what it takes to gain admission to and be successful at a highly selective institution.  

The common thread throughout all these experiences—and what I hope I have brought to UnidosNow—is the importance of dreaming big and having mentors to guide you.  

What have been the challenges?  Rewards?

Challenges

  • Creating awareness of the need to support an organization like UnidosNow relative to the many options people and organizations have for giving.  It was initially challenging to create brand awareness and establish credibility.
  • Addressing substantial needs—with limited staffing and funding.
  • Convincing students with tremendous potential to dream big, something many of them have never been encouraged to do.  
  • Working within the political environment and tackling the hurdles faced by undocumented students and families.

Rewards

  • Helping students at UnidosNow is the most satisfying job I’ve ever had.  We change lives. 
  • Observing UnidosNow grow from a start-up to an organization making a significant impact on the overall community—not only Latinos.
  • Enhancing my life, UnidosNow has brought purpose to retirement.

How do you see UnidosNow evolving?

As we look to the future, UnidosNow is well positioned to expand its services in support of our longer-term vision of empowering Latinos to achieve the American dream.  These offerings can include initiatives in healthcare, socio-economic advancement, and civic engagement.

Interviewing Cathaleen (Catalina) Kaiyoorawongs: A Volunteer Who “Dreamed Big”

By Sandy Chase

Cathleen Kaiyoorawongs, Hector Tejeda and one of our Future Leaders Academy Alumni.

“Dreaming big”—a phrase coined by Hector Tejada, the current director of education initiatives—describes Cathaleen Kaiyoorawongs (Catalina) and her efforts to draft a roadmap for today’s successful Future Leaders Academy (FLA).

As a volunteer, she played a vital role in helping the nonprofit identify its mission.  Catalina advocated for Latino high-school students:  preparing them for postsecondary education and careers.  She also underscored the importance of looking beyond immigrant rights and financial literacy to ensure the organization’s sustainability by attracting donors and partners.

Catalina had a vision for UnidosNow:  empower Latino youth by strengthening FLA, which at the beginning, was a fledgling group of no more than 10 students.  Moreover, she knew that she had to reach parents, reeducating them in order to overcome misconceptions and cultural barriers.

Catalina’s mantra—which UnidosNow continues to instill in its youth and families—is optimize your resources:  money management and education are vital.

Recognized as a Top Latino Educator in 2016, Catalina was chosen as a fellow in the NCLR’s (National Council of La Raza) National Institute for Latino School Leaders.  Through this prestigious institute, she fortified her advocacy skills—further strengthening UnidosNow’s educational program.

Because of her foresight almost eight years ago, UnidosNow is no longer Unidos THEN.  NOW it’s recognized for improving the Latino community and Sarasota-Manatee at large.

What prompted you to get involved with UnidosNow?

In 2012, a mutual friend introduced me to then-Sarasota Mayor Kelly Kirschner, who, like me, served in the Peace Corps in Guatemala.  He told me about UnidosNow, which he had founded with CJ Czaia and Luis Eduardo Baron, and introduced me to Frankie Soriano, the executive director.

Having returned from Guatemala, I was no longer interested in becoming a lawyer, and hearing about UnidosNow piqued my interest.  I wanted to work with the Latino community, so I offered to volunteer.

What role did you play as a volunteer?

UnidosNow receives a grant from IBERIABANK for our Future Leaders Academy.

As a volunteer, I helped in any capacity, especially conducting workshops on financial literacy and immigrant rights.  I also assisted with events, such as resource fairs—helping to promote UnidosNow in the community.  

FLA was in its infancy, with only a handful of high-school kids meeting after school.  UnidosNow was establishing its identity that would help ensure financial sustainability.  That’s when I pitched to the board a larger vision for the FLA education program, which I believed could help the organization build a base of community support.

The data on higher-education access spoke for itself:  Hispanics were graduating from high school at higher rates than the average.  However, their postsecondary access and attainment were lower on average as compared with that of their white counterparts. 

Using numbers and other information, I sought board support to move forward with my vision for UnidosNow and the families we ardently supported.  I became the director of education initiatives, also responsible for fundraising—enlisting substantial financial support from the Gulf Coast Community and Knight foundations.

What programs did you institute as the director of education initiatives?

To boost FLA, I started a summer ‘academy” (2013-present) hosted by the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee (USF).  Robin Groelle (education consultant) helped us design and develop the curriculum for the revised FLA. 

The six-week summer workshop—now an integral part of FLA—continues to prepare rising juniors and seniors for college and careers—exploring such topics as college selection, financial-aid programs, interviewing skills, and resume writing.   Participants also prepare for the SAT and ACT college-entrance exams.

“Job shadowing” is another component, where attendees visit local professionals to talk about their careers.  In the past, Ritz-Carlton, SRQ Media, and Kekering, Baberio & Co. (CPAs) partnered with us. 

Students were also introduced to science-based careers, visiting the Mote Marine Laboratory, and learning about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) from Dr. Aparna Telang, a USF biology professor. 

Before the end of my tenure, UnidosNow provided college tours, expanded the summer program by four times, and established FLA high-school clubs in Palmetto and Sarasota high schools. 

Another crucial aspect was helping parents with anxieties related to college life and review what parents can do to support their children in the college-application process.  We worked with parents to explain that college preparation was more than academic excellence.  It was also about developing extracurricular interest outside of school.

I also worked with the Florida College Access Network to build a local college access network in Sarasota County.  I worked with the Sarasota Chamber of Commerce and the United Way to start a coalition.

What other positions did you hold before attending the University of Michigan to pursue your M.B.A. (Ross School) and M.Ed. in Education, Leadership, and Policy? 

As the associate executive director, I fervently pursued fundraising while finding the best team to bolster the FLA program, especially the summer workshops.  I ran board meetings and strove to fulfill the UnidosNow mission—looking for creative ways to sustain the organization through a mission everybody would support.

How has your background contributed to the success of UnidosNow? 

I could readily identify with our Latino kids and their families.  The eldest daughter of a Thai father and American mother, I grew up in two cultures—challenged by financial stress, especially when my father’s business failed during the Asian economic crisis.

My mom raised us in Sarasota, where she worked several jobs, leaving me to care for my sisters.  But these experiences taught me determination—which is why I related to the UnidosNow students. 

I worked several after-school jobs, learning money management from a wealth manager for whom I babysat his kids.  In fact, another employer recommended me for a position at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office after having received my degree from Barnard College.

Attending Barnard, the women’s college of Columbia University, I learned the importance of leadership, especially for women. 

During my time at Barnard, I studied abroad in Ecuador and traveled all over Latin America, learning Spanish and deepening my knowledge of the socio-political culture, which I learned about and how it affects the Latinos of Sarasota-Manatee.

My experience in the Peace Corps (Guatemala) also taught me the importance of defying its cultural gender barriers—even earning me the title of “The Woman Who Wears Pants”—instilling a greater level of confidence—which helped me, as a UnidosNow volunteer, to articulate my vision.

More important, I saw first-hand the link between poverty and lack of financial education—strengthening my commitment to financial literacy and economic integration, a cornerstone of the UnidosNow mission.

What challenges did you face in your UnidosNow positions?

In the early days when UnidosNow didn’t have any apparent program structure or approach to fundraising, I was convinced that I was the person to take on this challenge. I was early in people management in my career. We operated on limited resources, and I was just inventing everything as I went along.  I thrive on traveling paths less traveled.

What were the rewards during your tenure as director of education initiatives? Associate executive director?

Catalina Kaiyoorawongs, Maribel Cardenas and Gloria Muñoz.

The effect I had on the students, the trust built with them, the hope their parents had, and the fruits of seeing results of my work—rewarded me multifold.  I sprang out of bed every morning and it was the greatest joy to work with students.

I love bringing together the best and the brightest and figuring out how to improve things and develop systems.  For example, we moved FAFSA (federal student aid) completion for Sarasota County from 34th in the state to the top 10 in Florida.

Interviewing CEO and President Dr. Mark Pritchett of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation: Paving the Way for UnidosNow—From Achieving Good To Striving for “Incredible”

By Sandy Chase

Gulf Coast Community Foundation (GCCF) has indeed helped UnidosNow grow—from being good on its way to becoming incredible—the foundation’s mantra.

During the second year, Gulf Coast Community Foundation was one of the first local organizations to support UnidosNow and its first Executive Director Kelly Kirschner.  Instrumental in providing the guidance for formulating the strategic plan of the nonprofit, Gulf Coast helped the UnidosNow board define its vision, mission, and current focus.

According to Kelly Kirschner, UnidosNow co-founder and current board member, “It was very hard to fundraise for our core programs, like Future Leaders Academy, with institutional funders.  Gulf Coast Community Foundation was the first large area foundation that felt they had done their due diligence on us and could invest in our work.”

Kelly adds, “I’m proud to say that we have done everything we have said we would do not only for our friends with Gulf Coast Community Foundation, but all of our other funding partners, private donors, and volunteers—growing the trust and level of credibility in the organization in the region—something we are very jealous of maintaining.” 

According to Executive Director Luz Corcuera, “Dr. Pritchett continues to be a source of guidance, support, and mentorship—with his exceptional leadership in the region.  UnidosNow is grateful to count on foundation’s partnership and support.”

UnidosNow congratulates Gulf Coast Community Foundation, as it celebrates its 25th anniversary—confirming the foundation’s theme:  “We’re better together.”

As one of the first foundations that supported UnidosNow, why did your organization choose to assist the new nonprofit and its Executive Director Kelly Kirschner?

Gulf Coast Community Foundation was one of the first “angel” investors in UnidosNow.  We listened to the “pitch” from founding board member and Executive Director Kelly Kirshner.  He said that UnidosNow was needed to build a strong future for our diverse, vibrant Latino (now Latinx) community. We were intrigued because this niche had not been addressed in our region.  Gulf Coast always likes to address important issues like this quickly and decisively.

What did that support look like?

Gulf Coast Community Foundation provided three major types of support:  (1) monetary, through grants for staffing and programs; (2) operational, programmatic, and governance guidance to strengthen the organization; and (3) connection to donors and community leaders who could help sustain UnidosNow.

How is it different from current collaboration?

UnidosNow Executive Director Luz Corcuera and CEO and GCCF President Dr. Mark Pritchett.

Our current collaboration is stronger than ever.  UnidosNow has moved from a start-up to a stable organization.  As a result, Gulf Coast Community Foundation sponsors fundraising events to help broaden UnidosNow’s donor base; we support its programs through grants; and we train board members to lead UnidosNow into the future.

How does UnidosNow continue to contribute to our community?

UnidosNow continues to increase its value to the entire community in many ways.  Foremost, UnidosNow provides educational opportunities and support for Hispanic and Latinx children and families.  Second, it is developing future leaders to represent Latinx interests in an increasingly diverse world.  Finally, UnidosNow is building bridges between cultures that will make our region and our country stronger and prosperous.

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 esther@unidosnow.org or at 941-301-8292.