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See all Sonoma Gives stories here

Considering that about 30 percent of the people who live in Healdsburg consider themselves Latino, according to U.S. Census data, it’s curious that until recently no independent organization existed to bridge the cultural, racial and economic gaps between this population and the others around town.

Thankfully, the lone organization, Corazon Healdsburg, has made up for lost time quickly. Founded in November 2016, the nonprofit supports multiculturalism by taking collective action around what it considers to be the social determinants of health.

In theory, this means connecting Latino residents with programs and services that better their quality of life. In practice, it means the group has engineered a spate of social programs in the areas of wellness, education and more.

“It’s really important for our community to have an organization where there is bilingual, bicultural staff that understands firsthand the barriers one has in accessing education, health services and even immigration,” said Executive Director Leticia Romero. “Many times, when people are seeking assistance, they come across barriers and either give up or don’t know what next steps to take. We’re able to provide follow-up to make sure they get what they needed in the first place.”

Following the October wildfires, Corazon sponsored a free store at which victims could “shop” for items donated by community members. It also provided volunteers at the store to assist Spanish-speaking victims with applications for fire relief funds such as Redwood Credit Union and UndocuFund.

Board chairwoman Ariel Kelley ran the free store until it closed in November, and notes that fundraising for Corazon and recruiting volunteers has been challenging because of what she calls “post-fire fatigue.”

“We were previously able to get a lot of human power donated through volunteers, but now we are finding so many volunteers are burned out after working so hard after the fires, we have to pay people to do work that was previously donated,” she said. “Basically, we need all the help we can get.”

With an annual budget of $250,000, Corazon sponsors a variety of initiatives, including a flagship program that is a partnership with Alliance Medical Center focusing on maternal health. Called Moms to Moms, the initiative is a free program designed to help expecting mothers prepare for parenthood with prenatal, birthing, lactation and peer-to-peer support education classes for pregnant mothers in their third trimester.

The effort also collects donations that are distributed to expecting mothers at five group baby showers thrown throughout the year by other moms in the community. The most recent baby shower was in December, and Kelley said the event continues to be a huge help for mothers-to-be.

“Becoming a new mom can be overwhelming,” she said. “Knowing you’ve got people in your corner, making sure you don’t have to go at it alone, makes the experience completely different in all sorts of positive ways.”

Other Corazon initiatives spotlight education. Earlier this month, the organization launched ESL and Spanish-language GED classes, which have become particularly popular with moms from the Moms to Moms group. The classes are in partnership with Santa Rosa Junior College and are held at Corazon’s office in the Healdsburg Community Center.

Last week, the nonprofit hosted the first-ever Healdsburg Preschool Fair, an event that brought together representatives from local preschools in a bilingual forum where all parents with kids up to 5 years old were able to learn about options for early childhood education. The event was underwritten by the Healthcare Foundation of Sonoma County, First 5 Sonoma County and the American Association of University Women.

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Corazon also runs an effort to help Healdsburg High School students who represent the first generation in their families to attend four-year colleges. The First Gen College Counseling program currently serves about 30 students and is growing every year.

Director Lori Rhodes said that in addition to helping students write essays and prepare transcripts, the program also connects them with one- or two-week summer programs on college campuses so they have experience applying, being accepted and going away from home.

“It takes a lot in this day and age to get a kid to college, and the resources necessary to do that are resources members of this (Latino) community usually don’t have,” said Rhodes, a former Healdsburg High School principal. “By helping these students understand what they need to make themselves viable applicants, and by helping them get out there and get a true understanding of the options they have, we’re trying to help them make a difference in their lives, their families’ lives and the world.”

Corazon also has expanded its roster of day-to-day wellness programs. Thanks to a grant from the Healthcare Foundation, the organization now subsidizes yoga and Zumba for members of the local Latino community, and will be launching financial literacy classes this spring to teach the importance of saving, building credit and paying taxes.

The group even has hosted “Know Your Rights” seminars during which local officials explain to members of the Latino community what their rights are during stops by police or officers from Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

No look at Corazon Healdsburg is complete without acknowledging the organization’s start. It was the brainchild of two local restaurateurs, Ari Rosen and Dawnelise Regnery.

Rosen was inspired by the Nuestra Casa Family Resource Center in Ukiah, where he grew up. In that community, Nuestra Casa advocates on behalf of Latino residents by offering community services, sponsoring big events and supporting locals in times of need.

When he and Regnery moved to Healdsburg and opened the now-shuttered Scopa, they were surprised that no similar organization existed in their new town, so they started one. Corazon’s “coming-out” party was the 2016 Dia de Los Muertos celebration in Healdsburg. In 2017, Corazon sponsored the same shindig, and it was one of the biggest block parties the city has ever seen.

Moving forward, Rosen said he hopes to see Corazon expand offerings to the point where the gaps between Healdsburg’s Hispanic and Caucasian communities are all but erased.

“You have to raise equality to have justice and social interaction that’s real,” he said. “Ultimately the idea is to create an environment where people find themselves having experiences together, and differences become secondary to all the things we share.”

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