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A new generation leading at La Luz

A new executive director, two new young and enthusiastic board leaders and a smashing sell-out, annual fundraiser that raised $600,000. Sonoma’s family services and community engagement nonprofit La Luz Center is on a roll.

New ED Leonardo Lobato happily attended his first La Luz Noche party prior to his official Aug. 23 start date.

“I felt the warmth, friendliness and welcoming of Sonoma,” Lobato told the Index-Tribune. “Support and participation are instrumental for La Luz in delivering its programs and services to the Latinx community.”

The “Summer of Love” themed event attended by 350 guests was held at the Sparc cannabis farm on Trinity Road.

In interviews prior to the event, new board president Nick Mendelson-Ontiveros and new board vice president Jose Alvarez spoke passionately about key La Luz initiatives made possible by the annual Noche event.

La Luz programs and initiatives

The center’s Latino Leadership program brought in both Alvarez and Mendelson in 2017.

“I got to meet a lot of great people with incredible potential who are eager to make an impact in our communities,” said Alvarez. The program has since been credited with placing about a dozen Latino leaders onto either a committee or a board position at La Luz.

The center’s microloan program has already made 35 microloans totaling more than $800,000 supporting 29 businesses ranging from auto shops, restaurants/food service, contracting and building to landscaping and domestic services creating over 150 jobs.

“There are so many people here who want to follow their dreams and start a business,” said Alvarez. “La Luz can help them get to their end goal.”

“I've seen firsthand how capital can create change, as well as coaching and mentorship,” added Mendelson.

Mendelson is a passionate supporter of the center’s English language (ESL) classes.

“Being bi-lingual can open doors and create opportunities for our community members,” said Mendelson. “Whether it is moving from the back of the house to the front of the house in a restaurant or a grandparent having the ability tospeak to their grandchild who does not speak their native language. The possibilities are endless.”

Alvarez’s own life was changed by La Luz’s citizenship legal advice. During the early years of La Luz, his father began traveling back and forth from Mexico to Sonoma to work the harvest and La Luz volunteers helped him to submit paperwork so that the family could live legally in the U.S.

Alvarez also sees the power of financial literacy.

“One of the things I see on a regular basis is the need for financial literacy within our community so the work La Luz does in that area is very near and dear to my heart,” he said.

Even a short-term annual program like the center’s tax prep clinic can yield results, says Mendelson. In 2021, the center helped 89 people with an average adjusted gross income of $28,000 to file returns and get refunds of around $150,000 which went back into our community, according to Mendelson.

“What we want to start creating for our clients is the opening up of a pathway to the middle-class,” said Mendelson.

To that end, Alvarez also cited the value of the construction trade classes offered at La Luz.

“All of our programs are important because in combination they can make (upward mobility) possible,” said Mendelson.

Looking back and forward

“We’re trying to figure out what does our community really need,” said Mendelson. “What do the demographics really look like here and how can we better serve our clients every single year?”

Lobato expressed excitement for the center’s “holistic” approach to meeting the range of needs of the Latinx community.

The right approach isn’t about one specific service, he said, “but support in various areas. That holistic approach — that’s how I like to solve issues, looking at all angles and finding solutions.”

Lobato will spend his first few months working with Mendelson and Alvarez to evaluate La Luz’s programs and assess how well each matches the needs of the community.

“Since our founding in 1985, we’ve evolved and increased our impact as an organization,” Mendelson said. All three men expressed optimism about the future and a sense of pride in being an integral part of the center’s future.

“La Luz celebrated 35 years last years and look forward to meeting our communities’ needs for another 35 years and beyond,” said Mendelson. “That would be an honor,” added Alvarez.

More about Leonardo Lobato

Leonardo Lobato, 61, was born and raised in Mexico and currently lives in Redwood City. For the past six years, he has led the International Center for Reciprocal Training, an organization he launched that helps Latinx college students transition from study to work through international training. He replaced longtime La Luz director Juan Hernandez, who stepped down earlier this year to launch a financial services firm focused on supporting small Latinx businesses. Lobato previously worked for Johnson & Johnson, Coors Brewing Company and Western Union.

More about Nick Mendelson

Nick Mendelson, 30, was born and raised in Sonoma. He attended Flowery Elementary School’s dual immersion in its early years and Adele Harrison Middle School soon after it was built. He graduated from Sonoma Valley High, spent two years at Santa Rosa Junior College and graduated with a degree in business and a finance concentration from Sonoma State in 2016. Right out of college, Mendelson was hired by Morgan Stanley to work in its Santa Rosa office.

More about Jose Alvarez

Jose Alvarez, 37, was born in Michoacan, Mexico and entered SVHS at the end of his sophomore year, speaking no English. He graduated in 2001 and began college classes at SRJC, but family issues forced him to drop out and support his family. He has been with Redwood Credit Union on West Napa Street for the last nine years. He and his wife and daughter live in the Springs, very close to where he lived as a teen. He is back taking classes at the JC, a few credits away from getting his associates degree, with the hopes of getting is bachelor’s degree at Sonoma State.

With additional reporting by Jason Walsh. Contact Lorna at lorna.sheridan@sonomanews.com.

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