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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News
Speedskating gold medalist Derek Parra will speak.

Thirty years ago Rebecca Chavez-Houck, acting director of Centro de la Familia de Utah, was a sophomore at Bingham High School. Her mother was a widow, and Chavez was studying hard so she could get a scholarship and be the first in her family to go to college.

Thirty years ago Derek Parra was a 4-year-old living in California. He'd not yet learned to skate. He would go on to be the first Mexican-American to win Olympic gold. He also would become the kind of man who is willing to talk to kids, especially Latino kids, to tell them that they, too, can achieve their goals.

Today, 30 years after its founding, Chavez-Houck gives thanks to the people who started the nonprofit agency now called Centro de la Familia. She remembers them: Robert "Archie" Archuleta, John Florez, Eugene Garcia, Linda Quintana Saylor, Orlando Rivera and Joe Sandoval. She may have been only a kid at the time, but she knows that, in those days, social service agencies didn't always have what she calls "cultural competency." The very people who were supposed to be helping Latinos did not always understand the fast-growing population.

Chavez-Houck honors her elders, who worked to remove the barriers for her generation. College was her family's dream for her, and it came to pass. Most of today's immigrants also dream of college for their children, she said.

Of course, Derek Parra's dreams came true, as well. He is the honorary chairman of Centro de la Familia's 30th Anniversary Gala, and he will speak about Utah's Hispanic heritage and its future at the gala, which will be held on Saturday, April 16.

Part of the mission of Centro de la Familia is to celebrate the good things that happen to Hispanics, Latinos and Chicanos, said Chavez-Houck. "Derek Parra exemplifies what can happen." Since he has been living in Utah, Parra has proved he is more than a great athlete, Chavez-Houck said.

Last year he came to talk to the girls and moms who take part in Centro's life-skills class. He was down-to-earth and genuine with the families, Chavez-Houck said. "He could share their struggles."

Chavez-Houck and the others who work at Centro de la Familia are the ones who will make the nonprofit organization mean something to the next generation. They are expecting unprecedented growth, said Pam Boede, development director. All the agencies that serve Latinos are going to have a hard time keeping pace.

When it first began in October 1975, Centro de la Familia was called the Institute of Human Resource Development. The Deseret News reported, "The first project of the new Institute of Human Resource Development, an all-Chicano organization, will be to find and help severely disabled persons of Spanish speaking descent. Andy Gallegos, director, said . . . the program was funded by the State Board of Education . . . the institute is a community-based, private, nonprofit, which will be looking at conditions and resources in the area . . . it also will provide an advocacy system for Spanish speaking people who may not be able to communicate or request service they need."

The idea, back in 1975, was to have some autonomy and choice about how government services were delivered, said Chavez-Houck. The idea worked. Through Centro, teachers, social workers and volunteers — people who respect and understand Latino culture — have used federal and local monies, as well as private donations, to help thousands of Latino families to self-sufficiency.

Programs have included aid for disabled migrant workers, mental health education and therapy, substance abuse programs and youth leadership and gang prevention. Parent programs have included one for teen fathers.

Currently Centro de la Familia runs a breast cancer screening clinic; a crime victim's assistance program; a family literacy program; five Head Start schools for the children of migrant and seasonal workers; Nuevo Dia (New Day) — a drug abuse prevention program for preteen girls and their moms; and also the Parent Resource and Information Center in five Utah elementary schools to help low-income Spanish-speaking parents find a role in their child's education.

The thread that runs through all of these programs is education, Chavez-Houck said. Access to education is vital. "We see education as the great equalizer." The agency has recently commissioned its first "white paper," with the help of the University of Utah department of education, and it reveals an achievement gap among Utah students.

The families they'll be working with in the future will be immigrant families for the most part. But some second- and third-generation families are still living in poverty, and they stand ready to help those families, too, Chavez-Houck said.

In the future, they will not necessarily be doing the educating themselves. "We are moving away from direct social services," said Chavez-Houck. Rather they'll be consulting, she said. The Centro de la Familia staff will build bridges between the schools and families, between the Department of Social Services and families. "We want to help agencies that have been funded to meet the needs as they develop." Increasingly, private businesses are giving them grants to do their work.

They already have consultants in various elementary schools, Chavez-Houck explained. Each of the Parent Resource and Information staff members works with 25 families. They make sure parents understand the system — know how to read a report card, when to go to parent/teacher conferences, how to help their children in this new country.

Families from other cultures may feel they are imposing on a teacher, Chavez-Houck said. They need to learn how to be partners and advocates in their children's schools.

Parents and grandparents want to help their children succeed. This is why the name of the agency was changed in 1994, said Chavez-Houck. "We wanted to better reflect the fact that we were working with the whole family. The whole family needed support." And the whole family can be a source of support, as well.

She herself was lucky, she said. Her mother was born in this country. Although her grandparents were immigrants and couldn't help her mother with school, Chavez-Houck's mother managed to figure it out all on her own. Eventually she could help her daughter succeed in school, even help her fill out college applications and apply for scholarships.

Her mother was on her own in school. But children of this generation of immigrants should not have to be alone, Chavez-Houck believes. They should have the same help and the same access as other kids.

If you go

What: Centro de la Familia 30-year Anniversary Gala With Derek Parra

Where: Utah Cultural Celebration Center, 1355 W. 3100 South

When: April 16, 6:30 p.m.

How much: $40 per person, reservations by April 11, call 521-4473.

Also: Dinner and dancing, festive attire, black tie invited

E-mail: susan@desnews.com