Nonprofits – ‘They do it with their heart’: Centro Civico staff continues work to lift Amsterdam community

Alberto Beltran, director of community engagement, left, and Jennifer Vallejo, Community Mobilization Program Coordinator
Alberto Beltran, director of community engagement, left, and Jennifer Vallejo, Community Mobilization Program Coordinator

Alberto Beltran and the staff at Centro Civico, a Division of Ibero, have walked in the shoes of the community members they serve.

“There is just a passion that I have for this work, having walked through it and now being in a position to help others be successful and do exactly what my parents did, open the door of opportunity for their kids. It’s an amazing feeling,” Beltran said.

“I believe every single person within these walls feels the same way,” he added. “They have similar experiences that brought them here to do the work they do, and they do it with their heart.”

Beltran has worked at the nonprofit agency supporting Latinos and underserved community members for more than 15 years. He currently serves as director of community engagement.

“It’s not work,” he said earnestly.

The position is a continuation of the advocacy role he took on as a child growing up in Amsterdam after his family moved to the city from Puerto Rico. Beltran was the first member of his family to learn English and became the family’s de facto translator and advocate.

“It was everything, doctor’s appointments, if my father was fixing a car I would have to go to the auto parts store with him. My father used to carry a notebook around, making sure he wrote things down. That’s how he learned to navigate and learned the language,” Beltran said. “When you go through it and understand how difficult it is … that experience brings the passion that I have.”

The move to the city was aimed at providing the family better opportunities. His parents went on to support other families navigating the same transition after they were established in Amsterdam.

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Now Beltran thoroughly appreciates his opportunity to continue offering Latino community members support through Centro Civico and expand opportunities to all underserved populations within the region following the merger with Ibero-American Action League in 2020.

“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Beltran said.

Providing programs
Centro Civico provides support to community members through a variety of programs and activities. The agency’s Immigration Department program offers free legal assistance and referrals to individuals working toward naturalization, facing possible deportation and in need of other aid.

The Health Homes program provides access to care management services to ensure that all providers involved in an individual’s care are working together and sharing the necessary information to support their recovery.

One of the most recent additions at Centro Civico is the Community Mobilization program that focuses on raising awareness and providing youth education surrounding mental health, the LGBTQ+ community and HIV.

“To ensure people are comfortable to speak about these issues, and specifically for students to know they have a place to go to learn and also to feel comfortable talking about these issues and getting the support they need,” Beltran said.

Personal connection
Community Mobilization program coordinator Jennifer Vallejo, like Beltran, feels a deep connection to her work educating kids about themselves, people of all backgrounds and the world around them.

Discussions about mental health, sexuality, identity and drugs can be difficult for families to navigate, Vallejo acknowledged. In some households, the conversations simply don’t occur.

“I see a lot of kickback when it comes to talking about this. People pretend it’s not a thing or have a mindset that it would never happen to me … until it does. Or some people are simply embarrassed,” Vallejo said. “But these are things I think children need to be aware of.”

For some parents, it can be a combination of a lack of awareness and a desire to protect their child from the world, as was the case for Vallejo growing up with a mother who was undocumented.

When a teacher made racist remarks to Vallejo, her mother told her she had to keep quiet and couldn’t bring attention to the family for fear of deportation.

“It was very scary for us,” Vallejo said. “That fear stuck with me.”

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Sexuality and mental health were never discussed in her family. Vallejo mostly grew up in New York City but lived in Amsterdam for about three years before moving back to the Big Apple. Afterward, she encountered gang violence and experienced the loss of a friend to suicide. Her family didn’t know how to help her and warned her against seeking support from a professional.

“I definitely wish there were more things available in my community for me to understand questions and concerns that I had, because a lot of things I didn’t know were a thing until I got to a certain age in high school,” Vallejo said.

Moving back
The loss of the friend spurred Vallejo to to study psychology and sociology at Hunter College. She became interested in working with the community and ran an after-school program in Queens. She ultimately made her way back to Amsterdam, and secured the position with Centro Civico following the start of the pandemic.

“I’m really loving it,” Vallejo said. “My passion has always been to work with children.”

Now she is focused on making change in the community and working with kids to make sure they have the knowledge and comfort level to discuss and navigate the world in which they live.

Vallejo is currently developing a variety of initiatives, including creating videos featuring Fulton-Montgomery County Community College students talking about these often taboo topics, working alongside Montgomery County Cares Coalition Coordinator Gwendolyn Ossenkop.

Vallejo also recently started a biweekly after-school program at Creative Connections Clubhouse, where children ages 13 through 18 can learn about and discuss these topics in a safe space. For example, many kids were totally unfamiliar with the term LGBTQ+ and didn’t know what pronouns were when Vallejo first met them.

“They’re eager to know more and all had questions. I know we can do something great with them,” Vallejo said.

Feeling out the maturity level of kids during these discussions is essential, but even more important is providing youth the chance to express themselves and access to someone they can talk to in the community for support or resources.

“A lot of kids just want to be seen,” Vallejo said.

Centro Civico, a Division of Ibero
Year founded: 1986
Mission: A dual-language, multiservice agency that uplifts, empowers and advocates for Latinos and the underserved community.
Areas served: Montgomery County, Mohawk Valley and Capital Region

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Categories: Life and Arts, Nonprofits 2021

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