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Organization for Latinos must find new quarters

Unete, the provider and coordinator of many social services, classes and cultural events for the Rogue Valley's Latino community, faces possible dissolution if it doesn't find a new space by the end of the year.

The organization has operated for 12 years in the basement of Medford's First United Methodist Church on West Main Street, paying $300 a month for a 900-square-foot space, but was told by the church's board in October that the church is growing and it needs the space for youth groups, said founder and Unete program coordinator Kathy Keesee.

Since then, Unete has been searching for a new home, but has turned up no firm leads, said Keesee, adding, "We're getting a little nervous right now." Unete serves more than 1,000 people a year, she said, and provides classes in English as a second language, citizenship and leadership for teens. It also offers support classes for Latino parents, passport and visa programs with the Mexican consul who visits twice a year from Portland and celebrations of Latino and American holidays.

Several classes, including Razas Unidas (Races United), focus on mentoring teens and parents to help students master homework, get through high school and accomplish college and loan applications, said Charlie Bauer, migrant education and English language educator for Southern Oregon Education Service District.

"I hope we find an agency or church that can get creative and realize they have space they're not using in the evening (when most classes are held)," Bauer said. "Adult ESL is greatly valued in the community by everyone "¦ and we don't have great leads on a new space right now."

The one-on-one mentoring program at Unete has improved the grades and graduation rates of 90 to 100 percent of Latino students at South Medford High School, said the school's English Language Learner specialist, Alejandra Ruiz.

"It's an absolutely serious situation," said Ruiz. "A lot of students depend on it. Without Unete, a lot of the ELL population would not be able to pass in their core subject areas of English, science and world studies."

The effect, added Ruiz, is that many would not be on track to graduate in four years and would be facing a five-year program, resulting in more dropouts and lower employment and wages "because employers want to see skills and the diploma." Unete has been "very powerful" in facilitating the Farm Workers Task Force, comprising organizations that help migrant workers get adequate housing, she said.

It also operates a class for homeowners at risk of foreclosure — getting loans rewritten for 17 of 20 applicants — and has assisted in injured worker claims, said Keesee.

One graduate of the citizenship classes, Miriam Campos of Medford, said she learned to fill out the papers for citizenship and to get passports, as well as learning computer skills needed to monitor her children's grades on the internet.

"It's helped many people from Mexico," Campos said. "I hope they find a home."

The long relationship with the Methodist Church has been "a really positive experience "¦ perfect," said Keesee, noting that church members often volunteered as English tutors, helped with blanket drives and opened their day-care facilities for Unete use. The church also started doing some services in Spanish.

Unete youth coordinator Victoria Bencomo said the Methodist Church donated computers, sponsored all events, hired tutors to help high school students and sent Bencomo to a conference on Latino rights in Chicago.

"They're always trying to help us," said Bencomo, a communications major at Southern Oregon University.

Oregon Health & Science University students at SOU use the Unete space to perform health checkups for Latinos, she added.

The church space has been ideal and Unete is looking for a similar situation — reasonable rent, class and activities space, office space for computers and copiers, storage space for event and craft projects, adequate parking and day care — and ideally, centrally located in the Medford area, Phoenix or White City, said Unete consultant and volunteer Ron D'Aloisio.

"It'll be a shame if they don't find a space," said D'Aloisio. "Everyone believed and expected Unete would always be around, so it was a shock to hear it might be gone soon. It's the only Latino-run, nonprofit, social and educational service agency in the valley and it serves a huge population. It's easy for them to get 200 people to show up at any event."

Surveys show that 16 percent of students (4,000) in Jackson County are Latino, and "Unete does a lot of work with parents and tends to help them stay in school," said D'Aloisio.

Unete is in talks now with one centrally located Medford church, Keesee said, but they won't know if a space is available until late December, so the search goes on.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Kathy Keesee, center, teaches Miguel Cortez and Adrian Maldonado advanced English in the basement of the Medford First United Methodist Church on West Main Street. Bob Pennell Mail / Tribune photo - Bob Pennell