partner stories

Centro Unido Latino Americano

Centro Unido Latino Americano

Hola Carolina team posing with an assortment of Latin American Flags

Throughout WNC, families of all demographics grapple with inequities in the form of economic disparity, food insecurity, accessing educational or employment opportunities, lack of transportation and childcare, insufficient access to medical and behavioral healthcare and more. For Hispanic and Latino families, these struggles can be compounded with stigma and discrimination, plus systemic obstacles including language and translation barriers, inadequate legal representation, fewer legal protections for undocumented individuals, distrust and fear of xenophobia in the criminal justice system, and historical exclusion from civic and political spheres.

All these factors can leave Hispanic and Latino families with little bandwidth to engage authentically with their community. That is why Centro Unido Latino Americano (CULA) was established. Serving the rural community of McDowell County and surrounding areas since 2009, CULA offers more than a dozen programs designed to create secure spaces, establish cross-cultural partnerships, and promote social justice, health equity, and inclusive education opportunities for the Latino community and beyond. Their six strategic focus areas include Art & Culture, Education, Advocacy, Workforce, Health and Leadership. Between 2020 and 2022, the number of community members served by CULA skyrocketed from 300 to 2,500 per month, and accordingly, they increased their staff from only two part time staff to include an additional nine full time staff and four contracted teachers.

CULA’s programming includes a partnership with McDowell Access to Care & Health (MATCH) in which a representative regularly visits the CULA office to connect uninsured and underinsured individuals with resources for primary, preventative and specialty care, along with dental, vision and behavioral health providers. They also welcome the WNC Community Health Services (WNCCHS) mobile clinic to their office monthly to provide services such as immunizations, physicals, medical and dental exams, and dental cleanings. These programs are strengthened by the work of bilingual Community Health Worker Laura Zapater, who became a well-known and trusted leader of health among McDowell County’s Hispanic and Latino community during the height of the pandemic. While building one-on-one relationships with clients, becoming intimately aware of the barriers faced in the community, and developing a network of resources to address these various barriers, Laura has provided services to hundreds of clients and participated in many outreach activities to support the health of community members.

CULA also nurtures the health of the community through Helping Hands, a program that regularly distributes healthy and culturally appropriate foods for those experiencing food insecurity, provides access to clothing, cleaning and hygienic products, and local farmer partnerships. The agricultural portion of this program is supported by their Community Garden Program in which CULA partners with local gardens to promote nutrition and healthy eating habits while also educating folks on food cultivation and sustainability. To further encourage healthy lifestyle habits, CULA also launched Vida Activa, a program that promotes exercise for youth and adults by leading outdoor recreation activities, such as group hikes and walks on local trails in partnership with the Friends of Fonta Flora State Trail.

To help with legal/immigration issues, CULA has brought representatives from the Mexican and Guatemalan consulates into the region to help individuals access important records locally, rather than face potential transportation barriers associated with traveling to the state consular office in Raleigh. For English language learners, CULA offers interpretation services to clients, translating important documents and accompanying individuals to meetings with schools, medical providers, lawyers, local agencies, and more. CULA staff share similar lived experiences with many of their clients, ensuring that they are well positioned to address the community’s unique needs. As Executive Director Margarita Ramirez says, “Being an immigrant and suffering many of the systematic barriers myself motivates me to keep advocating for my community.”

This is only a sample of the work that makes CULA an invaluable resource for McDowell County. Going above and beyond for their clients, they also offer programs to target mental health and chronic disease prevention, support education, enhance workforce development, promote civic and political participation, and celebrate Hispanic and Latino arts and cultures. In these ways and more, CULA is touching lives by addressing and alleviating hardships associated with the unique experiences and intersections of Hispanic and Latino families, undocumented individuals, rural residents, low-income folks, and the community at large.

“I might not be here by the time that our systems are fair and that are equitable to everyone, but I am going to keep working and paving the way for our future generations like our ancestors did for us.”

– Margarita Ramirez, Executive Director, Centro Unido Latino Americano

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Health & Wellness | Goal 4

Increase Access to Behavioral Health and Substance Use Prevention and Treatment

Support programs and networks that reduce deaths, treat addiction, and prevent first use

Objective 4.1: Reduce opioid overdose mortality throughout the region

Objective 4.2: Reduce untreated behavioral health and substance use disorder in disproportionately affected communities

Objective 4.3: Prevent and reduce behavioral health issues and substance use (tobacco, alcohol, illicit and prescription drugs) in youth

Health & Wellness | Goal 3

Address Health Disparities

Help reduce disparities based on race, location, education and income factors

Objective 3.1: Improve health outcomes for women and infants in rural and low-income communities and communities of color

Objective 3.2: Reduce the prevalence of common chronic health diseases in disproportionately affected communities

Objective 3.3: Increase effectiveness of health care through delivery of culturally aligned services

Health & Wellness | Goal 2

Increase Access to Whole-Person Health Care

Invest in integrated heath care with seamless connections to supportive services

Objective 2.1: Increase the number of people with affordable health insurance coverage

Objective 2.2: Increase the available workforce for primary and allied health care services

Objective 2.3: Increase access to comprehensive and integrated care

Objective 2.4: Increase access to community-based services in low-income, elderly and rural communities

Health & Wellness | Goal 1

Support and Build Healthy Communities

Support communities that promote healthy living and resiliency and help mitigate the impact of trauma, isolation and stress on individuals and families, especially those experiencing poverty

Objective 1.1: Decrease adverse experiences (ACEs and traumatic violence) and improve individual and family resiliency

Objective 1.2: Increase access to community environments that promote healthy living and social connectedness across the age continuum

Economic Opportunity | Goal 4

Foster Entrepreneurship

Support a well-funded, sustainable, competitive entrepreneur and small business ecosystem throughout the region

Objective 4.1: Increase the number of Person of Color (POC)-led small businesses throughout the region

Objective 4.2: Increase the number of rural small businesses throughout the region

Economic Opportunity | Goal 3

Build Economic Ecosystems

Help build a regional economic ecosystem that supports increased creation/retention of jobs and business ownership

Objective 3.1: Improve access to higher-paying jobs throughout the region, targeting the lowest income populations

Objective 3.2: Increase and retain quality jobs

Objective 3.3: Stimulate economic growth, catalyzing businesses and revenue

Economic Opportunity | Goal 2

Promote Work Readiness

Help build a skilled workforce with the knowledge and technical abilities to excel in a wide range of industry employment opportunities that provide a competitive, sustainable wage

Objective 2.1: Close the educational attainment gap in WNC, staying on pace with regional and county-specific projections (myFutureNC 2030).

Economic Opportunity | Goal 1

Develop a Comprehensive Data Resource

Source, analyze and share a comprehensive, county-by-county data set that paints a full picture of work readiness, economic development and entrepreneurial needs and opportunities specific to Western North Carolina

Education | Goal 3

Support Higher Education Career Readiness

Work in tandem with Economic Opportunity Strategic Priority to invest in career readiness at the community college and university levels

Objective 4.1: Close the educational attainment gap in WNC, staying on pace with regional and county-specific projections (myFutureNC 2030).

Education | Goal 2

Improve K-12 Education

Support K-12 learning experiences with the resources and sustainability to provide an excellent academic and social-emotional education, so that all students graduate ready for college or career

Objective 2.1: Address teacher workforce challenges

Objective 2.2: Equip families of students to support academic growth and social-emotional health

Objective 2.3: Increase capacity of partners to provide supports and services, particularly for children facing challenges related to poverty, systemic racism, being differently abled or English language learners

Education | Goal 1

Improve Early Childhood Education Ecosystem

Invest in an improved early childhood education ecosystem with the resources and sustainability to provide developmentally appropriate, affordable and accessible education and care to support ages birth to five, so that all children in WNC enter kindergarten ready to learn

Objective: Address early childhood educator workforce challenges

Education | Goal 4

Develop a Comprehensive Landscape Study

Source, analyze and share a comprehensive set of publicly available data that provides a regularly updated, county-by-county picture of access, workforce and student outcomes in early childhood education and K-12 education specific to Western North Carolina

Housing | Goal 5

Use Impact Investments to Create Affordable and Workforce Housing

Loans, guarantees, and other financial tools to leverage funding opportunities

Housing | Goal 4

Create and Preserve Housing Units for Persons Below 50% of the Median Income

Increase affordable housing for lowest-income individuals and families

Objective 4.1: Create rental units for households below 50% of the median income

Objective 4.2: Help families pay no more than 30% of their income on housing

Objective 4.3: Create and preserve communities in a way that is representative of the WNC natural landscape

Housing | Goal 3

Create and Preserve Senior Housing

Support age-appropriate resources in affordable and workforce units, rental and owned

Objective 3.1: Create needed rental and homeownership opportunities for seniors

Objective 3.2: Incorporate supportive services in rental housing developments

Objective 3.3: Increase use of universal design in development

Housing | Goal 2

Create and Preserve Supportive Housing Rental Units

Invest in housing with sustainable supports for physical and mental health and wellbeing

Objective 2.1: Create new supportive housing

Objective 2.2: Preserve existing supportive housing

Objective 2.3: Leverage state and federal funds

Single story home in the midst of being build with 3 volunteers helping.

Housing | Goal 1

Support Healthy and Safe Revitalization Opportunities

Support healthy and safe revitalizations that work against displacement and gentrification, preserve home ownership and create generational wealth.

Objective 1.1: Revitalize Neighborhoods

Objective 1.2: Repurpose existing structures to minimize environmental impact

Objective 1.3: Support home ownership