About UnidosNow

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.

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.

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!

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.

Unidos Then: Seeing the Writing on the Wall

Interview with Board Chairman Kelly Kirschner

by Sandy Chase

¡Feliz cumpleaños!  Congratulations, as UnidosNow celebrates 10 years of empowering the Hispanic/Latino community—strengthening Sarasota and Manatee counties. 

A role model for other nonprofits, UnidosNow continues to excel, offering such diverse, crucial programs as Future Leaders Academy Barancik Scholars (FLA), Future Leaders Academy for Girls (FLAG), Future Leaders Academy for Middle School (FLAM), Parent Leadership Program, Mi Voto, Mi Futuro Campaign.

The insightful, untiring, professional Dream Team staff; community partnerships; and dedicated volunteers, including board members and FLA alumni, have enabled UnidosNow to promote its mission of educating, elevating, and integrating the region’s LatinX and immigrant community.

Kelly Kirschner, first Executive Director of UnidosNow and current Board Chairman.

We know about the exceptional progress Unidos has achieved over the last 10 years, as local media continues to publicize how UnidosNow makes a difference.

But what was UnidosNow like THEN, when former Sarasota City Mayor Kelly Kirschner, local Spanish-language media publisher Luis Eduardo, and Honduran-American attorney Christopher John (CJ) Czaia mounted a campaign to ensure that the Hispanic/Latino population—the fastest growing segment of our population—was represented?

Kelly set aside time from his schedule as Vice President and Dean of Eckerd College’s Division of Executive and Continuing Education, Board Chair of UnidosNow, and Trustee of the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg to reflect about UnidosNow’s beginnings.

Why was there a need in our community for an organization like UnidosNow? 

I was serving as the Mayor of Sarasota in 2010 and, among others in the community – including particularly local Luis Eduardo Baron and CJ Czaia, we were horrified by the 2010 state of Florida election cycle and its results. The winning gubernatorial candidate prior to announcing his candidacy had zero name recognition anywhere outside of Naples. No political pundit gave him any chance of winning. However he invested over $12M in TV, radio and print advertising focusing squarely on a xenophobic, anti-immigrant message that laid the blame for Florida’s deep recession on the immigrant community and promised to remove them all once he was elected, following the lead of Arizona and their recently-passed “Show Me Your Papers” law.

In spite of such rhetoric in 2010, primarily vilifying the Latin American immigrant community, LatinX voters did not participate or show up to vote – particularly in the City of Sarasota where I was serving as Mayor. My recollection is that of our 20% LatinX population, only 2% were registered and only a fraction of that percentage (maybe 30%) participated in the 2010 election. It was a depressing moment for a number of reasons, the biggest being that if you have such a large and growing segment of your population that is not engaging in the most fundamental civic process, then it is a red-flag indicator of an unraveling of capital “C” Community.

When we looked at other areas of civic integration and asked the question:

UnidosNow founders, CJ Czaia (left) and Kelly Kirschner (right) in 2011.

What is the composition of X and is it reflective of this growing minority-majority community? Our local judiciary, are we seeing proportionate numbers of LatinX Sarasota/Manatee County judges? No. How about policing? No. Local civic and corporate leadership? No; utilization of banking services (no); attending cultural arts performances in the region (no); teachers and school administrators (no) – the list would go on and on, being abundantly clear that this was a marginalized and isolated community. Something needed to be done and greater attention had to be focused on integrating the region’s LatinX and immigrant population into the full cultural, economic, educational and civic weave of the Community. 

How did you get involved?  How does your background/career lend itself to the founding of UnidosNow?

As Mayor from 2010-11, I had made it a focus of my period to celebrate our immigrant community and seek to draw a greater percentage of the population into civic conversations with their City government – in particular as it related to policing.

There was a natural evolution then in working with individuals like Luis Eduardo and CJ to encaminar (guide) the creation of UnidosNow. Having served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in rural Guatemala where I lived and worked for close to four years; a Masters degree in Latin American Studies and a significant amount of time studying and working in Latin America, it was natural for me to work with this population. 

What did UnidosNow look like when it opened its doors?

For starters there were no doors. But let’s take a step back…If it weren’t for the initial vision and philanthropic support of CJ, UnidosNow would have never been created. CJ was the catalyst amongst our triumvirate to do something. I had started a non-profit in Guatemala but never in the US. Individually the three of us had understood for a number of years that something needed to be done to draw this community into greater civic conversations, but it was CJ that put up the dollars for many months to get it going.

What was the first UnidosNow project?

When I stepped down as Mayor, I took the lead as the first Executive Director and just as with the Peace Corps, it was an incredibly hard, but equally rewarding job. Our ‘offices’ were local coffee shops with free WiFi. I had a volunteer intern -Victor Yengle, a Dreamer who grew up in Sarasota and had to drop out of UF because they revoked his scholarship and in-state tuition the day he arrived to move in as a freshman and couldn’t prove his citizenship. (I’m proud to say that Victor is now a US citizen, a UF graduate and is in graduate school at Cornell University currently.)

Future Leaders Academy Class of 2015

The two of us were probably in a state of complete disorder trying to address as many issues in the region as we could at once, coupled with great energy and an unspoken understanding of the late John Lewis’ call for all of us to find the spaces in life where we are obligated to start “good trouble”. The biggest issue in our first year was addressing that “Show Me Your Papers” bill that the Governor promised he would make law in Florida when elected.

UnidosNow worked with a number of other immigrant/Latino-support organizations, Spanish-language media outlets, University of South Florida and its Institute for Public Policy and Leadership, New College, and southwest Florida faith-leaders for more than seven months, awakening the conscience of the state’s Hispanic/Latino community.

Through organized advocacy that led multiple groups to Tallahassee as well as local protests, the proposal never made it to the floor nor has it been brought up again since then. A number of individuals and groups throughout the state point to the work of Unidos in being critical to help stop that. 

UnidosNow at a community event providing books for children and information.

After defeating the “Show Me Your Papers” bill, what were your next steps?

Our vision has always been that UnidosNow would be a large-tent, immigrant-integration organization—working across the spectrum of education, culture, civics, and economics to better integrate this community into the full fabric of our larger Community.

After our first year, education emerged as our primary focus.  We were fortunate to partner with the former Sarasota YMCA Hispanic Achievers Program Director Estela Curiel on building the first cohort of our college-prep program:  FLA, which has evolved over time, particularly with the involvement of Hector Tejeda, and continues helping phenomenal students attend some of the most prestigious colleges and universities in this country. We hope and expect that these students will one-day return to their home in SW Florida and be these eponymous leaders of our region. 

How did you decide on the name UnidosNow?

Our current Executive Director, Luz Corcuera, has told me since I first met her over a decade ago that this concept of a melting pot in the United States is terribly flawed. There is no melting. What makes the US such a brilliant country is its diversity and the maintenance of customs and traditions from around the world that not only brings the world to a nation, but brings the enterprising, risk-taking spirit of an immigrant who leaves all that is loved and familiar to travel to our distant land to make a new life.

As such, Luz said the US has the most brilliant, complimentary fruit salad – where all immigrants represent their own, ripe, delicious, unique fruit and flavor profile – and together they make a perfect dessert. The creation of our name then sought to reflect that respect of richness, diversity; that multilingual is actually better than monolingual. It is also a play on words in that the United States in Spanish is “Estados Unidos” – so the fusion of Unidos with the urgent “Now” for an immigrant integration organization focusing on the LatinX community seemed to be about perfect. Uniting the community now – for the greater good of the United States is embodied in the name and our red, white and blue color palette. 

What challenges did you have to overcome in achieving your goals? How have you overcome these challenges?

When we first started, I think we confused many people. Some thought we were nothing more than a “flash-in-the-pan” political noise that would soon pass and fold.

Luz Corcuera, current UnidosNow Executive Director and fearless leader.

As a result, it was very hard to fundraise for our core programs, like FLA, with institutional funders. At some point in our second year, the 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.

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

Luz Corcuera’s leadership is foundational to this respect and credibility and we cannot begin to give her enough credit for how she has grown Unidos and our impact to levels that the three founders only dreamed of accomplishing in 2010.