The Annie E. Casey Foundation: Helping vulnerable kids & families succeed

Community Change

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Latin American Youth Center

A Bridge to Opportunity

Some people think of the Latin American Youth Center as an island of caring, creativity, and vitality in northwest Washington, D.C. Indeed, LAYC's bright, colorful building stands in stark contrast to graffiti-scarred walls in the surrounding Columbia Heights neighborhood. But Executive Director Lori Kaplan prefers to think of it as a bridge - to cultural identity, to wider opportunities, to services and supports that will strengthen youth and their families.

Founded in 1974 to serve Latino youth whose families were new to the United States and feeling isolated, LAYC supported those young people in defining their needs and finding their own constructive solutions to them. "In the beginning, it was a place where teens, 16-year-olds, 17-year-olds, came every day after school, says Executive Director Lori Kaplan. "We did music in the basement. We painted a lot of murals… there wasn't much money, but there was a lot of heart and soul and vision," Kaplan recalls.

Today, the center's range of programs - education, counseling, housing, employment, health services, arts, and recreation - exist not only for youth, but also for their extended families. "The best way we found to build families is to make sure the parents' goals are being met so they can move forward in their lives," says Kaplan.

"We've seen a generation of young people grow up," adds Kaplan. "And now we're playing an important role with a new generation of families. With every generation, we support their hopes and dreams for their families."

The center has served a diverse group from the beginning. "We were formed and founded by Latinos, but we serve and support any child, youth, or family member who needs help," Kaplan says. Today's clients - 5,000 a year - also come from Vietnamese, African, African-American, and Caribbean communities. "We change with the people around us," says Kaplan. "One-third of the staff come from the community. We're very networked, very collaborative."

Help at a Critical Time

For Minerva Lazo, LAYC has been a bridge back to her family and her own dreams in troubled times. As a sixth-grader, she became close to an LAYC counselor, who realized Minerva was having trouble at home. The center's free counseling program helped Minerva and her mother, a native of El Salvador, cross the cultural gap that was beginning to divide them. Counseling "helped my mother understand that it's OK for me to express myself," says Lazo, now 20. And Minerva understood more about her mother, whose life in a family with 13 children forced expression to take a back seat to survival.

Lazo enjoyed LAYC's arts and computer programs and took advantage of tutoring opportunities. But by 10th grade, she drifted away from the center, dropped out of school, and discovered she was pregnant. She knew where to turn.

"They were there for me. I knew I was not alone," she says of the LAYC staff, who helped her enroll in the center's Next Step Public Charter School so that she could earn her GED and take parenting classes. She later graduated from the center's Youthbuild program, which provides education and job training, and then spent a year in AmeriCorps. As a student at the University of the District of Columbia, Lazo now works part time at LAYC.

Someday, Lazo would like to open a childcare center of her own, which is exactly as Lori Kaplan thinks it should be. "I see a lot of young people working around the community who came out of the program," she says with pride. "You see the fruits of your labors."

Carol Highsmith