Opening soon: A window of opportunity

The 2018 UnidosUS Affiliate of the Year PODER broke ground this month to their new headquarters, a catalyst to widen and deepen their collective community impact.

By Daniel P. Loftus, President and CEO, PODER

In the Chicago, new residents arrive from Spanish-speaking countries in search of a better life. Successful integration however, for those unable to speak English or unfamiliar with the job market or U.S. history, culture, and customs, is elusive. The result is often underemployment, despite marketable work experience or significant country of origin education. The economic implications, beyond the mental health strain and human-capital loss felt by the individual and their family, extend to local employers and our entire city when available positions remain open.

Daniel P. Loftus getting ready for PODER HQ groundbreaking.

As an immigrant integration center, PODER prepares Spanish-speaking adults to seize opportunities through comprehensive and tuition-free English (ESL), civic education and industry-specific, job training and placement programs. Since 1997, we’ve empowered more than 13,500 adult immigrants to establish successful and fulfilling new lives in the United States by placing 83% of graduates with job placement partners including 11 banks (First American, Bank of America, Chase, Centier of Indiana, Marquette, US Bank, TCF, Citibank, BMO Harris, PNC, Byline, and Wintrust) and three insurance providers (Allstate, State Farm, and Farmers) represented by 13 independently owned agencies where PODER trainees benefit from a 34% increase in wages upon placement. These numbers not only have an immediate economic impact on individuals but also communities and future generations as they accelerate upward mobility.

PODER HQ: BUILDING UPON A SOLID FOUNDATION

In 2015, after 18 years in Pilsen, PODER closed our original location due to gentrification and moved administrative offices to West Lawn on Chicago’s southwest side. Six years later, after opening five direct service, satellite sites (from Brighton Park to Ashburn) and a pivot to remote instruction during the pandemic resulting in a 194% increase in enrollment, we identified a Gage Park building to serve as our regional headquarters (PODER HQ).

PODER’s vision for HQ is where economic equity, upward mobility, and societal inclusion are attainable for all. The city’s first immigrant integration and job center, to be located on the corner of 55th and Homan Ave, is where windows of opportunity will open as an abandoned building for more than 25 years will be reinvented for a reimagined PODER.

More than bricks and mortar, PODER views construction as a unique, catalytic opportunity to engage neighbors and local businesses to build long-term relationships. Our community engagement strategy has successfully garnered input on programming priorities that have informed site design. For example, limited, onsite parking will encourage public transportation usage to maximize open, free WiFi public spaces for farmers markets, health fairs and community celebrations. Indoor, natural light-filled spaces, in addition to job training, will provide support services from mental health to immigration to opportunities for local entrepreneurial popups. All leading to the successful societal and workforce integration of our participants and their families with a ripple effect to be felt by neighbors, employers, and our city.

UNIDOS US’S 2018 AFFILIATE OF THE YEAR

The 2018 UnidosUS Affiliate of the Year Award raised PODER’s profile and gave us a national podium from which to speak. But more important than the award and gala, we as an organization began to view ourselves differently. A belief permeated from our board to staff to participants that even after 20 years, we were just getting started.

I referenced this idea during my acceptance speech in Washington, DC, saying the award was not about the past but about our future. Thanks to this renewed strength and momentum, when the community needed us most during the pandemic, we were ready to respond.

From 2019 to present, PODER’s geographic reach has increased 349%, resulting in a 167% increase in enrollment and we now prepare to break ground on Chicago’s first immigrant integration and job center. We don’t get to this moment without our partnership with UnidosUS.

WHAT’S TO COME

PODER HQ will be a beacon of light, inspiration, and possibility, a catalyst to widen and deepen our collective community impact. The site, as part of the area Quality of Life Plan, will revitalize 55th Street while providing connective tissue between two city investment corridors of Invest South/West. But the greatest economic impact, of greater societal and workforce integration, will be felt by our clients and their families for generations to come.

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