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