Sonoma Valley’s La Luz: bridging a spectrum of needs

Latino Life

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For many years Noemi Vasquez worked solo as a seamstress in Sonoma County’s Valley of the Moon, earning a part-time income doing small jobs, hems and alterations. She was skilled, and opportunity beckoned from clients needing elaborate quinceanera dresses and dance costumes, but her small sewing machine was not up to the task.

She might still be doing alterations today were it not for a $1,200 microloan from the 34-year-old Sonoma Valley nonprofit La Luz. That loan made it possible for Vasquez to buy a commercial machine and finally launch her business.

“She brought the agreed $45 in every month to repay the loan,” Juan Hernandez, La Luz’s chief executive recalled. “Sometimes, it was all pennies and nickels. We had to get a wrapper to make change rolls,” he smiled. “But she paid it back.”

Microlending to small-business owners is just one of the resources La Luz offers from its modern stucco multipurpose center in Boyes Hot Springs. The Center is a lifeline and resource hub for low-income residents and disadvantaged families in the valley’s Latino community. It also has a well-established reputation as a safe and reliable partner for a population that, Hernandez says, is not comfortable asking for help.

“One of the toughest aspects of the microlending program is we find many people are debt averse, experientially and culturally,” Hernandez said. They are accustomed to saving cash before making large purchases. But that approach severely limits whether a business can ever grow; most can’t. Borrowing money to expand a business often makes good economic sense, but is not a familiar path. “They want to know, how do I pay it back?”

Instead, La Luz provides a suite of resources to help the business owner succeed, from language and legal services to education, training and mentors. To qualify for a small loan, the program requires the business borrower first prepare cash-flow projections, a marketing plan, provide a credit report, proof of stable housing, as well as make decisions about how the business will pay the loan back.

“These are people who work hard, but would not be considered for loans by traditional banks,” Hernandez explained.

The microlending program was seeded in 2015 with a $50,000 grant from Simon Blattner in honor of his wife, La Luz board member Kimberly Blattner. The Center has so far made 17 community loans, all of them repaid but one, when the owner became ill.

Like its microlending program, La Luz plays a unique role in Sonoma County and the Latino community. For many, it is the first point of access for help with basic needs in an emergency, and for opportunities to overcome economic and social challenges. La Luz helps clients navigate resources, and in partnership with donors, businesses and other county organizations, provides help with filing tax returns, offers health clinics, classes on computer literacy, parenting skills and nutrition, as well as English as a Second Language courses.

“We serve about 10,000 people a year,” Hernandez says, “Our long-term focus is building community, helping resident Latino citizens build strong life skills they can pass on to their children, and live better lives.”

Sometimes that also means mobilizing resources to meet emergencies. After the fires, in addition to providing housing assistance, La Luz launched a Building Trades certification and training program to help prepare workers for better jobs that would be plentiful in the coming months and years. It also expanded the business microlending program.

In the three decades since La Luz was founded, the Latino community in Sonoma Valley has drastically changed. A few miles north of Sonoma on Highway 12, the towns of El Verano, Boyes Hot Springs and Agua Caliente were once host to migrant laborers from Mexico and Central America who came to work in vineyards and wineries, and then returned home after harvest. But by 2008, especially following waves of deportations under the Obama administration, Hernandez said, the population shifted. Instead of mainly single men working seasonally, the Springs area became home to resident families and year-round employees. Today the unincorporated region is one of the most impoverished in the county, according to studies and surveys. The 2017 Sonoma Valley Community profile report found that one third of the Springs area households made less than $35,000 per year, and the US Census statistics showed that 25% had incomes below the Federal poverty level.

Patricia Galindo, client services coordinator for La Luz, said that about 80% of the families they see are holding multiple jobs in an effort to get by, juggling day and night and weekend shifts. While housing shortages and rising rents have been a chronic problem, after the fires, many are finding themselves in increasingly tough situations. Galindo described one elderly client, a U.S. citizen, struggling to make ends meet on Social Security after 30 years working in Sonoma vineyards. He cooks his meals on a portable camp stove in the yard outside his $500-a-month room. He’s facing the prospect of being forced to leave the country, as the cost of living continues to rise.

Two thirds of the people La Luz serves each year are women, and 62% of their clients are between the ages of 30 and 60 years old. More than half have incomes of less than $26,000 a year.

Hernandez grew up in the East Los Angeles barrio before earning a bachelor’s degree from UC Riverside, and a master’s in psychology and organizational development from Sonoma State University. In addition to his position at La Luz, he has served on the Sonoma Sheriff’s Advisory Group, the Sonoma Valley Health Roundtable, Portrait of Sonoma County Leadership Team, and the Latino Leaders of Sonoma County, as well as the board of the Napa Community Foundation and the Napa Valley Hispanic Network.

He sees the menu of programs and networks available through La Luz as a comprehensive way of addressing the critical connections between health, opportunity and education: “Programming along the entire continuum,” as he describes it.

His vision for La Luz is to build an engaged community, while providing a path for upward mobility. Hernandez and the organization’s board make it a point to strengthen bridges within the county. To accomplish their programs, La Luz relies on support from Sonoma County businesses, organizations and individuals. Of the $3.6 million in support raised in 2018, nearly half was from individual contributions from private donors and grants.

Despite the often dark rhetoric on the national stage, Hernandez finds North Bay residents to be people of conscience, willing to step up and help the local residents who clean, work in kitchens, fields and gardens to get ahead. And, he believes, it will take the entire county community to keep it moving in that direction.

Latino Life

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