UnidosUS Affiliate El Centro de Servicios Sociales helps Latinos access the health care they need at the right time and place

At the 2018 UnidosUS Annual Conference in Washington, DC, El Centro de Servicios Sociales, an UnidosUS Affiliate in Lorain, Ohio, was honored with the 2018 Helen Rodriguez-Trias Health Award for their work on improving access to culturally relevant health care for members of Lorain’s Latino community.

The award was received by Victor Leandry, El Centro’s executive director, from UnidosUS Board Member, Mayra Aguirre, at a reception sponsored by the Office of Minority Health, HHS, CVSHealth, and Boehringer Ingelheim.

UnidosUS Board Member Mayra Aguirre presents the 2018 Helen Rodriguez-Trias Health Award to El Centro Executive Director Victor Leandry.
UnidosUS Board Member Mayra Aguirre presents the 2018 Helen Rodriguez-Trias Health Award to El Centro Executive Director Victor Leandry.

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El Centro was founded in 1974, and for more than 40 years, has helped the Latino community in Lorain access the health care they need. Lorain has the largest Latino community in the state of Ohio, and El Centro is the only Latino-focused social services agency in the county.

El Centro’s approach to expanding health care access is grounded in the “social determinants of health,” which means that where we live, learn, work, play, and pray, all make a difference in our everyday health—in other words, to make a difference in an individual’s health and well-being, you have to think wider than access to doctors and hospitals.

Photo: El Centro de Servicios Sociales
Photo: El Centro de Servicios Sociales

For example, El Centro’s office is in a food desert where 59.6% of the neighborhood’s residents are Latino. They offer a food pantry, free farmers’ market, and a subsidized community-supported agriculture produce subscription program to address residents’ lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables. El Centro also runs UnidosUS’s Comprando Rico y Sano program, reaching 1,580 people with nutrition education, grocery store tours, cooking demonstrations, and SNAP referrals in 2017.

In addition to the Comprando Rico y Sano program, El Centro also offers UnidosUS’s Padres Comprometidos program, which supports parents whose children attend the schools in Lorain. Additionally, citizenship classes, mobile Mexican consulates, and case management are available to those members of the community that are immigrants.

Affordable Care Act | ACA | health

Focus on health care access

Since El Centro’s founding in 1974, the organization has been focused on increasing access to health care for the local Latino community. During its formative years as a community-based organization, El Centro provided transportation to medical appointments and interpretation during appointments. From 1999 to 2008, El Centro worked to expand access to quality health care for Latinos even further, by participating in a program called NOBLE (Northeastern Ohio Bilingual Experts), working to both place social work students and engage in recruiting to try and bring bilingual health professionals to the area.

Despite Lorain’s significant Latino population, there is a dearth of interpretation services available for Spanish-dominant patients. As a result, El Centro was approached by the Lorain County Board of Mental Health to discuss potentially creating an interpretation program for agencies in the County Board’s Mental Health Network.

This partnership has continued, and in 2016, El Centro pioneered a Mental Health Navigator position, a bilingual social worker who helps those in need of mental health services navigate the local health care system’s behavioral health care services and treatment programs.

The Navigator helps eliminate any barriers that someone might encounter as they try to seek mental and behavioral health care, such as transportation issues, interpretation services, or addressing health insurance issues. Consequently, residents of Lorain County can access mental health services without fearing barriers that result from insurance coverage, lack of interpretive services, transportation, or even immigration status. Since the position’s inception in April 2016, the Navigator has helped make 1,022 connections between clients and mental health providers.

There’s evidence that their interpretation services have made a difference as well. In 2017, El Centro provided interpretation services for 771 mental health appointments and 748 appointments.

From left: Janet Murguía, UnidosUS President and CEO; Thelma Cruz, LSW Adult Supportive Service Supervisor and Mental Health Navigator at El Centro; and Victor Landry.
From left: Janet Murguía, UnidosUS President and CEO; Thelma Cruz, LSW, Adult Supportive Service Supervisor and Mental Health Navigator at El Centro; and Victor Landry of El Centro.

While the political climate has been difficult and upsetting—particularly for immigrant communities—El Centro has noticed that more and more immigrants are seeking treatment for depression and anxiety—a sign that El Centro’s efforts to increase access to and decrease stigma around mental health services is working.

El Centro’s work has also recently been put to the test. In early June of this year, El Centro was on the ground to assist families whose loved ones had been swept up in a raid at Corso’s Flower and Garden Center.

El Centro is well aware of the anguish that this separation causes, and the impact there could be on children’s mental health for years to come. As a result, they expanded their programs to provide weekly care to those affected by the raid, taking on this responsibility even though the raid didn’t occur in Lorain.


Beyond the data on the number of people who are seeking treatment, El Centro has also seen the impact that their work has on the lives of people who live in the community.

For example, Eduardo* was born in Mexico and spent most of his working years in the United States in construction, with a specialty in cement.

Because of a collaboration with Cleveland Clinic on a minority men’s health fair, an El Centro case manager was able to connect Eduardo with the director of the Cleveland Clinic center in Lorain, and he received a second opinion on his care—one that allowed him to enroll in a clinical trial, free of cost.


El Centro is now collaborating with six Latino social service organizations in Ohio—some of whom are UnidosUS Affiliates—called the Ohio Latino Connection. The Latino Connection allows organizations to quickly share and improve their strategies for increasing access to health care for Latinos. The Latino Connection is also working to replicate El Centro’s navigator services in their own organizations.

Local partnerships like these are an example of how other organizations like the Office of Minority Health Regional Health Equity Councils, state agencies, hospitals, universities, and other public and private entities can engage with community leaders to support the Latino community, while aligning policy and data efforts under the HHS Office of Minority Health’s National Partnership for Action to End Health Disparities.

UnidosUS is proud of the work that El Centro does every day to improve health care for the Latino community in Lorain. To learn more about El Centro’s work, visit their website, and to learn more about UnidosUS, visit our website or follow us on Facebook or Twitter.

This blog is provided with funding support by the HHS Office of Minority Health.

* Name has been changed.

By Stephanie Presch, Content Specialist, UnidosUS

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