The new headquarters for El Puente in Jefferson City isn't just a beautiful venue for Hispanic ministry.
It's a doorway to the future.
“We have a new home, and it will help us serve the community in creative new ways and continue to build bridges that unite the Hispanic community and the broader community — all of which is the community of God,” said Cristhia Castro, El Puente’s executive director.
“We’re not just serving a need but a community with needs,” she noted.
Sponsored by the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, the Diocese of Jefferson City and local parishes, El Puente is a separate, nonprofit agency offering an array of services to the Hispanic communities in and near Jefferson City and California.
The staff recently moved from its longtime location on East McCarty Street in Jefferson City to 2709 Industrial Drive, Suite B — within sight of the Cathedral of St. Joseph and the Alphonse J. Schwartze Memorial Catholic Center.
“We’re now closer to many of the clients we serve,” Mrs. Castro noted. “It’s a place where people can come and request information and ask for help, and we can serve them on a more one-on-one basis.”
She said the new location isn’t quite as large, but the layout is perfect.
“I think it’s plenty for what God is bidding us to do next,” she said.
That, she believes, includes helping connect Hispanic immigrants and their families with even more of the people and resources they need in order to become engaged, successful and faith-filled members of society.
“We don’t have the resources to do everything for everybody,” she said. “But we can reach out to other agencies and work with them to get people the help they need.”
El Puente’s mission is “to make present the healing love of Jesus, the Incarnate Word, promoting human dignity through a ministry of presence and outreach to the Hispanic community.”
Five people — Mrs. Castro, Incarnate Word Sister Bertha Flores Almeida, Incarnate Word Sister Guadalupe Ruíz, Incarnate Word Sister Christi Sanchez, and Nena Neal — serve as bilingual, bicultural liaisons between Spanish-speaking immigrants from Mexico, Central and South America and the neighborhoods and faith communities they are eager to become a part of.
In addition to accompanying people to doctor’s appointments and providing language-interpretation services, the staff and volunteers help individuals and families overcome obstacles to fulfilling the dreams that brought them here.
They provide information about finances and nutrition and connect people with short-term assistance and long-term resources.
Through the COVID-19 pandemic, they’ve also been working with Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri (CCCMNO) to help process assistance requests from Spanish-speaking people throughout the Jefferson City diocese.
“I’m really excited that we’re connecting with other organizations,” Mrs. Castro stated. “We don’t want to compete or duplicate services. We want to work together to help make all the available resources known and accessible to the Hispanic community.”
For instance, adults still getting acclimated to a new country, a new culture and a new language often need help finding housing and employment and enrolling their children in school.
They might also need assistance helping their children with homework, navigating the technology for at home “virtual education,” planning their finances for college and applying for scholarships and financial aid.
Meanwhile, organizations such as Catholic Charities and the Boys and Girls Clubs have sought help marketing their services to Spanish-speaking families.
“This has really opened a new perspective of what else El Puente can do for people in surrounding areas,” she said. “We’re finding many different opportunities as we go. A good example is the Sisters providing a ministry of presence by phone and online.”
Always looking ahead
One of the founding objectives of El Puente in 1999 was to identify and cultivate leadership among people within the diverse Hispanic communities in the Jefferson City and California areas.
That remains a key priority for El Puente and the various other manifestations of Catholic Hispanic ministry throughout the diocese.
And it’s bearing fruit.
Several recently ordained Hispanic deacons and volunteers helped paint and remodel El Puente’s new building, and several other volunteers helped pack up and cleaned the old building and unpack at the new one.
“That’s what we’re looking for: to work together with the different communities, going beyond Jefferson City,” Mrs. Castro said. “After all, we’re all brothers and sisters and are all in need.”
The new location has plenty of open space for tutoring children and teens and hosting informational gatherings for their parents.
“For the time being, social-distancing is a challenge,” she said. “We have to keep everybody safe and follow the social distancing rules.”
Anyone who can help, especially offering two to three hours a week, would be an answer to prayer, said Mrs. Castro.
“Now that students have the option for virtual education during the COVID-19 pandemic, we want to find mentors and tutors — not only to help the students with their subjects, but their parents to participate in their kids’ virtual education via Launch,” she said, referring to an online education platform provided by the Jefferson City School District.
Likewise, some parents need guidance in planning ahead of time to pay for college and helping their children apply for scholarships and financial aid.
“I believe it is important to help parents to manage their finances by providing them with the tools such as educational resources to accomplish their financial goals,” she stated.
“They work so hard to earn their money, but if they don’t know how to manage it, they will not have savings in case of an emergency, money to buy a house or money to send their kids to college,” she said.
“Better together” — “Es mejor juntos”
Most new clients learn about El Puente by word of mouth.
That’s why Mrs. Castro is eager to get the word out not only about the new location but the new services El Puente hopes to offer.
“Our core services will never go away,” she said. “But with the pandemic, we’re seeing needs and new ways of serving the community that we never thought of before.”
For instance, El Puente is working to start a program this fall to help people who don’t have insurance pay their medical and dental bills.
Even something as simple as helping people get a COVID test if they need it can be immensely helpful.
“We recently had a client who was worried about possibly been exposed to COVID-19,” she said. “We called the Community Health Center, and I was on the phone with him, translating. I wasn’t personally there with him, but I was able to help him.”
Mrs. Castro believes God is guiding the entire El Puente staff and board of directors.
Parents constantly ask us to help their children — whether it is helping to fill out a school application or obtain diapers for them — she recognizes God is challenging the organization to expand its focus on children.
It takes the form of short-term assistance as well as unlocking doors to long-term success and independence.
“The goal is to provide knowledge and know-how, always respecting people’s dignity, so they can fight for their goals and have a better life,” she said.
All the while, El Puente takes into account their spiritual well-being, helping Hispanic Catholics of all ages grow in their relationship with God within His Church.
“I think the moment is great, and the time is now to take advantage of all these opportunities and ways we can connect all the communities and help each other in our faith and in our ability to succeed as citizens, as neighbors, as members of the Body of Christ,” she said.
Fuel for the fire
Mrs. Castro emphasized the importance of helping the children of Hispanic immigrants finish high school and continue their education.
“Education is the key to success,” she said. “You’re always better off making life decisions from an educated point of view rather than out of ignorance.”
She talked about a family that fled to the United States to escape violence back home.
“They were so afraid they were going to be killed by gang members or by members of another family they had conflicts with, they had to leave,” she said.
“What do you then?” she said. “You have to run for your life. And they come here, seeking a better life.”
They must now learn a new language and a new culture, and a new way of living.
“They come with their stories, their pain, their troubles and their hope for something better,” she said. “And they sometimes feel lost because they don’t know where to go and how to get what they need.”
The family asked around, and people told them about El Puente.
“That’s like fuel for us,” said Mrs. Castro. “That they know they can reach out and we can help and serve them. As long as God lets us know the way we can reach out and help them.”
Mrs. Castro remembers the first time she and Sr. Bertha toured what would become their new location.
“It was like a blank canvas where we could create this new space to better serve the community and be a place of welcome,” she said.
It is not a new beginning, just the next phase in their ministry that’s been going for 20-plus years.
“We’re not starting over or reinventing ourselves,” Mrs. Castro said. “We keep moving forward. We now have the knowledge and community recognition that we didn’t have 20 years ago, and we’re working to get better so we can continue serving 20, 40 or 60 more years.”
She hopes that with the right kind of help from El Puente and the larger community, immigrants in need will become financially fit and contributing members of their churches and society.
“Ten years from now, I would like to see their kids in college,” she said. “I want the parents to know English and be financially independent. I want to hear about how they have accomplished to manage their money so they bought a house and paid off their cars. I want to know that they’re taking care of their health.
“And of course, we want the children from a very young age to have an encounter with Jesus and always be getting closer to God by attending Catholic schools,” she stated.
She asked for prayers for God to bless El Puente’s new home and give wisdom and insight to everyone who seeks and does His work there.
“And pray for more people to come along in our journey, to help us accomplish our mission,” she suggested.