Parent Leadership

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.

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

By Marnie Howell, Parent Leadership, Parent Leadership Director

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

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

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

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

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

One of the last Parent Leadership meetings of 2020.

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

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

Together in the Distance. Our Parent Leadership Program Participants Stay in Touch

By Marnie Howell, Parent Leadership Coordinator

When we couldn’t attend a classroom, our Parent Leadership group created a WhatsApp group for our classes at Gocio and Tuttle elementary schools. We found a new way to connect with students, and our site has been unbelievably busy.

Our daily communication consists of a small lesson that’s posted in the morning. Some of our favorite themes have been flowers, recipes, specific foods, history behind holidays and celebrations, and lessons parents can do with their children.

We also use the group to post news of locations of food banks, where masks are being handed out and any other critical information. Our participants have become very adept at using new technology, and are constantly sending pictures of the food they’ve received, wishing each other happy birthdays, as well as uplifting each other in any way they can.

Here are some comments from our moms about what this online tool has meant for them:

“It is very fulfilling for me opening up a chat and that someone is always there wishing well, or sharing something good, or learning something in this beautiful group; all that happens to me. So when I open WhatsApp, this is the frist chat I open… I miss you.” |“Es muy satisfactorio para mí abrir un chat y que alguien siempre esté deseando algo bueno o compartiendo algo bueno o estar aprendiendo algo en este bello grupo; me pasa todo esto. Así que cuando  abro el WhatsApp, el primer chat que abro es este… Las extraño”.

“Personally, I want to thank you, for the teaching, the time shared, and your dedication to continue giving your best to us every day. Thank you. I’ve enjoyed and made the most of each class, and learned new things.” | “Personalmente quiero agradecerle,  por las enseñanzas, el tiempo compartido,  y su gran dedicación a seguir cada día dando lo mejor de ustedes hacia nosotros. Gracias. He disfrutado y aprovechado cada clase, he aprendido cosas nuevas”.