By Bob HighFill
Maricela Gonzalez grew up with El Concilio.
Now, she’s passionate about the work she does with the organization.
Gonzalez and thousands like her have been touched by El Concilio, an organization in its 50th year serving underserved communities throughout the Central Valley. The programs and services El Concilio provide have meant the world to Gonzalez.
“They helped me throughout my whole life,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, attended the Council’s Child Development program when she was little and later worked as a cook at the Council’s preschool. Inspired by her fellow staff to pursue an education, Gonzalez earned her high school equivalency diploma and eventually obtained a masters teacher’s permit and an Associate of Arts degree. She has worked the last 11 years with the Council’s Childhood Development program and recently was promoted to Assistant Site Supervisor.
The 33-year-old mother of four boys credits the Council for making her life better.
“I didn’t know what to do and thanks to them, I kept going to school, and I kept trying my hardest to be a better person not only for the children I work with but for my family,” Gonzalez said. “I want to be able to show them that school is the way. I want them to go to college. I want them to do better. That’s every parent’s dream.”
Helping people realize their version of the American dream is one of the primary goals of El Concilio, the largest Latino, community-based, non-profit agency in the Central Valley. El Concilio helps people create better lives for themselves and their families, become leaders in the community and in turn empower others.
Gonzalez’s entire life has been impacted by El Concilio, which offers vital services across eight departments, many free of charge. Gonzalez is passionate about giving back to the community through the organization that means so much to her. Gonzalez and the staff at El Concilio’s Child Development Preschool for some 700 children ages five weeks to 5 years old meet the needs of their kids and do whatever they can to make sure they feel safe and comfortable in the center. Sometimes, a child might come to them having not eaten the night before. Gonzalez and the staff make sure the kids are fed. Maybe a child just needs someone to talk to, Gonzalez and the staff are there to lend an ear.
“We’re meeting their needs and that’s why I feel so strongly about child development because I know I’m changing a child’s life,” she said. “That’s the reason I have a passion for child development.”
Viviano Rodriguez is the first college graduate in his family. Like Gonzalez, he attended El Concilio’s preschool and now works for the organization in its human resources department. Rodriguez, the 26-year-old son of immigrant parents from Jalisco, Mexico, was born in Stockton and graduated from Oakdale High School before he earned an AA from Modesto Junior College and a degree in Business Administration with an emphasis in finance at California State University Stanislaus.
Rodriguez said some of his teachers at the Council’s preschool are like family members and their guidance and encouragement were important in his development.
“Organizations like El Concilio are always empowering the community,” Rodriguez said. “They’re there helping make it easier for people who are in our situation that came from Mexico.”
Rodriguez said he helped set an example for his younger siblings, some of whom are attending college now.
“My mom never envisioned us going to college,” he said.
That’s the power of El Concilio.
El Concilio provides a wide range of services to help those in need, primarily Spanish speaking immigrants.
“We’ve had programs that really have had an effect on people’s lives,” said Jose Rodriguez, the son of immigrant farm workers and the President and Chief Executive Officer of El Concilio. “If it wasn’t for those programs, people wouldn’t be as better off as they are today.”
An example would be El Concilio’s Citizenship Program, which helps immigrants obtain U.S. citizenship, so they perhaps can find better employment and vote and participate in the Democratic process.
“It makes them feel like they’re contributing members to the community,” Rodriguez said. “What we find is when they go through that process themselves, they encourage others and those around them to do so as well.”
El Concilio’s Re-Entry Services help individuals coming out of jail assimilate back into the community by providing support services, such as helping find employment and housing. Such assistance can help individuals stay out of trouble and contribute positively to the community.
“That really makes a difference for their quality of life and it makes a difference in the community,” Rodriguez said. “That’s one less individual out there committing crimes.”
El Concilio’s services impact the lives of more than 25,000 families in the Central Valley. Each program is designed to improve a person’s quality of life, even if it’s something as simple as enrolling an individual in a medical program or one of the state-sponsored insurance programs, so he or she has access to health care. For some, that’s a life-changing opportunity.
El Concilio helps people learn to read and write through its Literacy Program. Jose Rodriguez said it’s inspiring to receive a thank you letter from somebody who couldn’t read or write before going through the program.
“It’s like teaching someone who’s blind and giving them sight,” he said.
The Home Visitation Program is important for families living in rural areas who do not have transportation or ways to get into town. El Concilio visits these families and makes sure the children are developing well. The Council provides reading materials to help families become more literate and encourage them to read.
The Immigration Program is a source of great pride for the Council. When former President Barack Obama approved the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, El Concilio helped more than 3,000 students in the Central Valley obtain work permits. El Concilio held fairs to spread the word about DACA and helped students fill out and submit applications.
“And now they are contributing members of the community,” Rodriguez said. “That’s the type of program where we know we have made a tremendous difference in those individuals’ lives and those services were free. It was our way of helping them be able to stay in this country and pursue their version of the American dream.”
Rodriguez said he knows of several DACA students who now own a business and others who have high-paying careers.
As a non-profit, El Concilio can adapt to meet the needs of the community. The organization is not tied to one program. When life-altering circumstances have struck, El Concilio has been there. For instance, in 1996, El Concilio received grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to assist flood victims in rural sections of San Joaquin County. During the more recent housing crisis that gripped San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties, El Concilio received funds from the Department of Housing and Urban Development that was used to train staff who helped literally hundreds of families keep their home. El Concilio’s work in this area helped then California Attorney General Kamala Harris write the Homeowners Bill of Rights, which was signed into law in 2012.
“We see it as our responsibility to be out there advocating, making a change and making sure that some of those resources are dedicated to the people that we serve,” Rodriguez said.
Along with helping individuals navigate difficult circumstances, El Concilio takes pride in the little things that can mean a great deal. Gonzalez said one of her fondest memories as a child was receiving a stuffed toy from El Concilio at Christmas. At the time, her parents were saving money to pay for their citizenship. There wasn’t much to spread around, so that big, fluffy, white stuffed dog was special.
“If it wasn’t for them, I don’t think I would have gone to school. Thanks to them, I want to continue my education. I want to get my (Bachelor of Arts degree) and then possibly be a director one day.
“I want to help the community and make sure somebody else gets help like I got help.”
By Bob HighFill