Kalamazoo’s Hispanic American Council makes comeback, is well-positioned for the future

By Mickey Ciokajlo | mciokajl@mlive.com 

on July 11, 2014 at 10:02 AM, updated July 11, 2014 at 10:04 AM

Three years ago, the Hispanic American Council was on its way to hitting bottom.

The man who was then directing the Kalamazoo-based agency would be charged in September 2011 with embezzling thousands of dollars from the organization, a crime for which he was later convicted and sentenced to jail.

Funders fled and staff was cut.

A Kalamazoo Gazette/MLive headline in December 2011 said, simply, “Future of Kalamazoo’s Hispanic American Council in jeopardy.”

The organization is a critical connector to the Kalamazoo area’s growing Hispanic population. Among its many services, it provides language interpretation for legal and health needs.

mercedes, Lori Mercedes

Lori Mercedes is the executive director of the Hispanic American Council who has led the organization back from a difficult period.

It is often the first place – even before the police or the doctor – that undocumented residents, some of them sexual assault and domestic violence victims, come to when they need help.

“We can’t shut down. It’s just not an option,” Lori Mercedes, a staff member who stepped in as interim executive director, told the Gazette at the time in 2011.

At that low point, Mercedes was the agency’s only remaining employee, down from a paid staff of five.

Today, the Hispanic American Council is back.

Funders are returning, they’ve been able to hire staff and the agency passed an audit from the Internal Revenue Service.

“We have a complete clean bill of health from the IRS,” said board member Bob Cinabro, who is also a Kalamazoo city commissioner.

Cinabro, a lawyer, joined the board about a year and a half ago. He said he would not have done so if he wasn’t confident in the Hispanic American Council’s financial integrity going forward and its ability to do excellent work in the community.

“The Hispanic American Council is a legitimate, mainstream organization that has come back from a bad period — but it’s back,” Cinabro said.

Cinabro is one of several members who have joined the board since the embezzlement occurred. Another is Dick Fink, a social worker by training who has five decades of experience working with non-profits. Board President Peter Sanchez is another new board member.

Hispanic American Council
The Hispanic American Council is located in Kalamazoo’s Edison neighborhood.

But the face, and the heart, of the organization is Mercedes.

She has worked for the Hispanic American Council, which was founded in 1981, for 12 years. She’s the one who kept it going during its darkest period and she now carries the title of executive director (the “interim” was removed about two years ago).

“Lori has been the heart and soul of the organization in terms of interface with the community which the council serves,” Cinabro said. “She was the solid anchor carrying the council forward through the sometimes choppy seas in the past, always focused on the mission, and bringing it to the point today where it stands ready to meet the challenges going forward to make us a better community.”

Mercedes wasn’t entirely alone. Cinabro and others point to the support of community leaders such as the Rev. Michael Hazard, Charles Warfield, Bob Ezelle, Michael Rice and Marigene Arnold.

Mercedes said the agency has become an expert at engagement at the community level. The organization is taking the lead with other local agencies on a new project where they will be working in the Northside, Eastside and Edison neighborhoods, which are among the city’s most challenging.

The Kalamazoo Community Foundation has returned as a funder, which Mercedes and her board see as a big vote of confidence that they have turned things around.

“The Community Foundation respects the way that the Council has embraced full transparency in their reorganization process,” said Carrie Pickett-Erway, president/CEO of the Kalamazoo Community Foundation. “They have been honest about their challenges and invited the community to engage in the process of learning and improving. And we have been impressed with the level of engagement from the Council’s board, taking responsibility for the governance and oversight, while allowing Lori Mercedes to execute the transformation as the organization’s leader.”

And I’d like to add this: Welcome back, Hispanic American Council. It looks like you’re well-positioned to be as strong as ever.

Mickey Ciokajlo is the editor of the Kalamazoo Gazette and mlive.com/kalamazoo. Email him at mciokajl@mlive.com or follow him on Twitter. Read his past columns here.

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