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SANFORD — Inside a squat building at 215 Bracken St., a small, two-desk office has turned into the Lee County base for a Siler City nonprofit’s far-reaching mission.
After operating out of Siler City for nearly 26 years, the Hispanic Liaison opened a new satellite office in Sanford last week to offer more direct services to Lee’s Hispanic residents — expanding on an outreach to Chatham’s neighboring county that began in 2009.
“We’re so nervous, you know, it’s like any new venture, but we’re very excited to really continue the work that we have been doing,” said Hannia Benitez, the Liaison’s Lee County deputy director. “... We’re just really excited to have a physical location for our community members to say, ‘Hey, I don’t have to travel the 30 minutes all the way there to get these kinds of services.’”
The Hispanic Liaison serves Spanish-speaking residents across four counties — Alamance, Randolph, Lee and Chatham — and for the last couple of years, Benitez estimates they’ve served hundreds of people in Sanford. According to U.S. Census data, Lee County’s population is about 20% Hispanic; Sanford’s population is 26% Hispanic. In comparison, Chatham’s population is just over 12% Hispanic, while Siler City’s is nearly half Hispanic.
“That’s where the opportunity came (from), and we’re glad that we have been able to be in Chatham County,” Benitez said. “We’ve been successful in the area. We’ve been able to help our Lee County families and friends and community members, so we’re very excited that we’re able to expand into Lee County, because essentially, it’s still going to be El Vínculo Hispano.”
As such, the Liaison will offer Lee County residents many of the same services they offer in Chatham — first and foremost, their community support program.
“It’s the ‘bread and butter’ (program) helping community members with obtaining vital documents for themselves and for their children,” Benitez said, as well as any other area resources and services community members need help accessing.
Likewise, the Liaison will also offer Lee County clients free immigration consultations, plus distribute information about their rights, services and — of course — COVID-19. Via its COVID-19 response program, the Liaison plans to help residents get vaccinated, connect them with local health providers and offer financial assistance to Hispanic families in need through its Solidarity Fund.
“These have been services that have been available to our (Lee) community members,” she said, “but right now it’s at their door.”
At first, the office will host clients by appointment only, and unvaccinated clients will be asked to wear masks. For now, Benitez plans to host only one client indoors at a time. To schedule an appointment, residents can call 919-292-0177 or email Benitez at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“If you’re vaccinated, we’re able to remove the masks, but for the most part it’s going to be outside,” Benitez said, adding, “It’s a small working space, but as we expand, we’re hoping to get more clients in.”
For the Liaison’s leadership, last Tuesday’s “soft opening” was a moment that’s been years in the making.
“When we reopened in 2016 (after closing in 2015), agency expansion was part of El Vinculo’s strategic vision at that time,” said Benitez, who was on the Liaison’s board of directors before joining the staff. “In 2018, opportunity really came knocking at the door. We were approached by the Hispanic Council of the City of Sanford and Lee County.”
This council, said member Dennis Duke, had one clear goal: establish a central organization, much like the Liaison, which could support the needs of Lee County’s Hispanic residents.
“When I was talking to other people and leaders in the community, they all used to say … we’re all getting calls from the community, help them translate this document,” Duke said. “‘I got this document from the government or from the IRS. Oh, I need to make an appointment for a doctor, they don’t speak Spanish.’ We’re all helping people outside our jobs’ expertise, so that’s when I said, ‘We need something more centralized.’”
The Hispanic Council had originally emerged in 2014 at the behest of the City of Sanford and Lee County to advise both governments while they embarked on a three-year community evaluation, Duke said. It was part of the Building Integrated Communities (BIC) project, a statewide initiative designed to help local governments formulate practices to serve and engage with their immigrant populations.
In 2017, the project’s report came out describing the Spanish-speaking population’s various needs and growing size — and that’s when the council realized they needed to do something.
“It’s just an advisory council,” said Duke, who’s also a bilingual social worker at Lee County Schools and the Liaison’s board vice president. “We couldn’t do much, so we wanted to be our own nonprofit. But we find out it’s not that simple. It takes a lot of effort, paperwork, a lot of players, a lot of pieces.”
In 2019, the Hispanic Council reached out to the Hispanic Liaison, and not long after, the two organizations decided to join forces.
“Instead of helping them open an agency here … (we decided) that it would be a lot simpler and easier for everybody involved to just have a satellite office,” said the Liaison’s executive director, Ilana Dubester. “Then we proceeded to beat the bushes for money.”
But just after they’d finalized all planning in February of 2020, the pandemic hit. Everything dragged to a halt. Some personnel left, and money became scarce, but things soon picked back up again. In January, the Liaison hired Hannia Benitez as the office’s deputy director after receiving funding from a few North Carolina foundations. A Lee County domestic violence nonprofit, HAVEN, agreed to rent office space to the Liaison in its building near downtown Sanford.
“I was really happy where we ended up because we have a partnership with HAVEN,” Dubester said. “We start small without giant overhead expenses, you know, get a foot in the door, and settle in and then eventually, probably, we’ll move on to a bigger place.”
They’ll also have a bigger opening celebration in the future, as well, Dubester added.
Now that they’ve set down roots, Benitez said her next steps will be spreading the word about their services, building trust and gathering feedback about what the community needs. To help Benitez, the Liaison is also working on hiring a Lee County program and volunteer coordinator.
“Any additional programs in Lee County are going to be implemented in response to Lee County community needs,” Benitez said. “ ... It just really depends on what we get back from the community.”
The dream, Duke added, is now a reality, and he’s going to do what he can to keep it going.
“My goal now is, we’re going to be knocking on doors,” he said. “We’re going to let people know we’re here.”
Reporter Victoria Johnson can be reached at email@example.com.