Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, September 1, 2017

La Paz offers a hand up for new Latino residents

The mission of La Paz is to empower and engage Chattanooga’s Latino population through advocacy, education and inclusion. - Photo provided

The woman’s story began in Guatemala, where she suffered difficulties that drove her to the U.S. to make a better life.

It continued in Chattanooga, where she felt like a stranger in a strange land. Her desire to build a foundation under her feet brought her to La Paz, a nonprofit that serves the local Latino community.

Stepping through the front door of La Paz Chattanooga was like finding the bricks and mortar she needed, as well as the will to put her back into the necessary work.

The woman’s story continues today as she is a part of the city in which she has made her home and begins to give back. She’s a member of a local PTA, she’s making presentations to other Latinos about domestic violence, bullying and health and wellness, and she’s started a sewing business.

She’s built not just a foundation for herself but also walls and a roof.

The woman, whom Johnson doesn’t identify, is just one of about 30,000 people La Paz has served through direct services, case management, education and outreach programming since opening its doors in 2004 when the organization became a 501(c)3 nonprofit.

Serving a population Johnson says will reach 25,000, or 15 percent of Chattanooga’s population, by 2020 has been no small task for the six-person staff at La Paz. But Johnson makes it sound easy by dividing the organization’s services into two “buckets” – client empowerment and community engagement.

Client empowerment

When a person walks through the door of La Paz, the staff does everything it can to meet the person’s needs, Johnson explains. Services range from simple tasks such as translating a letter written in English into the person’s native language to dealing with traumatic cases involving domestic violence or human trafficking.

“Client empowerment can involve anything a Spanish speaker might need,” Johnson says.

To meet some of these needs, La Paz has established partnerships with organizations throughout Chattanooga.

Through one such affiliation, Dr. Jack Rowland at Caring Choice Women’s Center refers his Spanish-speaking patients to La Paz to receive consultations and prenatal education.

La Paz’s community health director, Jessica Cliche, in turn, refers pregnant clients to Rowland or to another local clinic, depending on the woman’s needs.

In another example, La Paz sometimes refers clients to Catholic Charities for financial assistance. While these people could go straight to the aid organization for help, Johnson says the Spanish-speaking community feels more comfortable going through La Paz. “They trust us,” she says. “We speak their language.”

Although the staff at La Paz has become adept at handling cases involving serious matters, the simple assignments still have their challenges. Some of these derive from the different cultures and languages that make up the Latino community.

“Several different countries and languages are represented in Chattanooga,” Johnson adds. “We have people from Puerto Rico, Columbia, Peru, Brazil and more.”

A large percentage of the Latino population in Chattanooga hails from the rural areas of Guatemala.

Many of these people have a low level of education, with some speaking a Mayan language that might or might not have a written component.

“The diversity among Latinos is greater than people realize,” Johnson says. “This provides its own challenges.”

Community engagement

Community engagement takes La Paz out of its converted one-story house on Bailey Avenue and into the city, where it engages not just with Latinos but the greater Chattanooga population.

La Paz’s annual fundraiser, Sangria on the Bluff (previously Sangria on the Southside) doubles as a cultural event that highlights the traditions of the Latino people.

Through music, dance and authentic Latino food and drink, the event introduces Chattanooga to the Latino community and celebrates the people who are a part of it.

What’s more, a new La Paz membership initiative called Compania is designed to engage Latino professionals by offering networking opportunities and encouraging philanthropy.

“Over the last few years, we’ve created programs to engage people who might not require our social services but still need something from us,” Johnson explains.

“We want to give them a place to belong but also inspire them to give back.”

La Paz also creates awareness through its annual Latino Leadership Awards, which recognize and honor Latinos for their career achievements and community involvement.

This year’s honorees, which include individuals as diverse as a restaurant owner, a police officer and an artist, will be recognized this month.

“We chose these individuals because of their professional accomplishments and the impact they’ve had on the lives of others,” Johnson notes. “The event gives us the opportunity to celebrate some of our city’s amazing leaders.”

La Paz de Dios

When La Paz was launched in 2004, its official name was La Paz de Dios, which means “the peace of God.” But the moniker didn’t stick.

“No one could pronounce ‘de Dios,’” Johnson acknowledges. “Some people even thought it was a church. So we shortened it for marketing purposes.”

At the time, the Latino community in Chattanooga was made up of mostly single males who came to the U.S. to work, Johnson says.

Few, if any, of them had banks accounts, so they carried a lot of cash with them and were frequently robbed, she adds.

To help stop this activity, a group of local church leaders and other residents formed La Paz.

“They were regular Chattanoogans who wanted to put some effort into helping the Latino community,” Johnson recalls.

Over time, the local Latino population grew and changed. What began as a group of single males developed into a community of families as wives and children moved to Chattanooga, and in time, Latino professionals began to emerge.

La Paz responded in kind. “In the beginning, we focused on the underserved,” Johnson says.

“We continue to work with those people, but now we’re also developing leaders and serving bilingual professionals who might not need our social services but still want to connect to this community.

“It’s more challenging but also more rewarding.”

Volunteer force

While resourceful, the half-dozen staff members who make up the heart of La Paz could not fulfill the organization’s ever-expanding mission on their own. For this reason, Johnson is grateful for the corps of volunteers that help them pull off events both large and small.

During this year’s county-wide school registration day, 75 bilingual volunteers helped local Latino students enroll in 14 Hamilton County public schools for the upcoming academic year.

According to La Paz, there were over 5,200 Latino students in Hamilton County public schools at the end of the 2016-17 school year.

The parents of many of these students do not speak enough English to complete the paperwork needed for school, Johnson points out.

La Paz volunteers helped them to prepare their documents and interpret for school officials.

Clifton Hills Elementary teacher Jacob Vrieswyk says, “The support La Paz gave our school was a lifeline.

“Without their partnership, we would not have been able to adequately serve our community.”

La Paz benefits from about 2,500 volunteer hours a year.

But Johnson says La Paz could accomplish even more if everyone gave something. “Welcome your Latino neighbor, volunteer with us and help us with funding so we can continue to serve and grow.’’

A place to belong

Although Johnson is proud of the numbers she can quote, her favorite stories are still the ones involving an individual whose life has been changed for the better, in part, because he or she stepped through the front door of La Paz.

Via email, Johnson asked one of La Paz’s clients to share her thoughts about how the organization impacted her life.

Once again, Johnson chose to not reveal the woman’s name but she did share her words:

“I like to learn and take care of others,” a translated version of the original email, written in Spanish, reads. “I was very shy and did not have confidence in myself. But you gave me goals to meet, and I lost my fears.

“Now, I give information about La Paz to people. It makes me feel like I’m taking part in the work you do.

“I’m proud of myself and happy to be able to help.”