LAUP nears fifth decade serving Latinx community

Holland nonprofit works toward a better region through advocacy, celebration and education.
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The Latin Americans United for Progress team with the Ballet Folclórico de Mexico group for the 2022 Tulip Time parade. Courtesy LAUP

An organization on the lakeshore is marking 48 years of advancing the welfare of marginalized populations with its services, programs and events.

Johnny Rodriguez. Courtesy LAUP

Johnny Rodriguez was named executive director of Holland-based Latin Americans United for Progress (LAUP) last October. He recently spoke to the Business Journal about his organization’s current and upcoming efforts to empower Latinos to participate in “creating a better community for all through advocacy, celebration and education.”

LAUP’s services include document translation and interpretation; interpreter services; form assistance; referrals to housing, health care and social services; college advising and financial aid application assistance; Mexican Consulate appointments; and vaccine clinics.

Its programs include the ¡Adelante! Program, designed to prepare eighth- through 11th-graders for college and careers; the ¡Más Adelante! Program, which helps 12th-graders with college and career readiness; English as a Second Language instruction; a GED program taught in Spanish; a citizenship program; Spanish classes to prevent cultural and language loss and to equip the staff of nonprofits that serve the Latinx population; and Health through Salsa, a Thursday night dance class designed to foster physical health and social connections.

The organization’s events include LAUP Fiesta, which this year is on July 9 at the Holland Civic Center and will include entertainment, a job fair/information booths, car show, food trucks and more; the LAUP annual Drive for Education golf outing, which is July 25 at Macatawa Golf Club; the LAUP Annual Gala fundraiser, which is set for Oct. 28 at the Holland Civic Center; a Dia De Los Muertos celebration in November in partnership with Holland Public Schools; and a Youth Leadership Conference that’s coming to Hope College in February 2023. LAUP also participated in Tulip Time in May.

LAUP was founded in 1974 when Tino and Lupito Reyes and others convened to discuss starting an organization to meet the needs of the Latino community, and they realized they could have a greater impact by merging with a couple other groups that existed at the time.

Rodriguez said since coming on board as LAUP’s new leader, he has wanted to make sure people understand LAUP is working for the betterment of everyone.

“We focus on the Latino community, and it’s very much needed, but we are trying to bring all other marginalized, underrepresented communities with us, as well,” he said.

LAUP’s clients include those ages 13 and older who identify as Hispanic/Latino, African American, Asian American, Caucasian and more, including first-generation high school students, first-generation college students, low-income households, and immigrants and migrants. The organization’s goal is to help remove barriers and create upward mobility.

Its clients are located throughout West Michigan, including Holland, Zeeland, Saugatuck, Grand Haven, West Olive, Hamilton, Fennville, Pullman, Conklin, Grand Rapids and Big Rapids.

Rodriguez pointed to census data showing the city of Holland’s Latinx population now stands at 25% — and it is around 16% in Grand Rapids. These figures are expected to grow in the next five years as migration from Latin American countries continues, which is why Rodriguez thinks organizations like LAUP are so important.

To meet the growing need, LAUP is seeking more volunteers for events, programming and office support. On Aug. 1, LAUP will relocate from its borrowed office space within BLVD Church, at 238 W. 15th St. in Holland, to 430 W. 17th St., just two blocks away.

“We are thankful that BLVD opened their doors in the time of COVID, when it was really uncertain if LAUP was even going to make it through that, but it is very important that we have our own space for our youth and for our adults,” Rodriguez said, noting most programming will shift to the new location, but LAUP still will partner with BLVD for larger events.

He said although it would be nice to have a presence and more visibility in downtown Holland, real estate there is expensive, and the office on 17th Street is on a bus line and in a historically Latinx residential area on the southwest side of Holland. 

Rodriguez said he is particularly proud of the following recent youth programming outcomes:

  • All 22 enrolled students graduated from the ¡Adelante! Program.
  • All 13 students graduated from the ¡Más Adelante! Program.
  • The average grade point average of its high school seniors in the program was 3.17.
  • All 13 seniors in the youth programming were accepted to college.
  • LAUP awarded $3,200 in scholarship funds to its students.
  • LAUP helped students secure $186,169 from other scholarship sources, not including federal student aid grants, loans or work study dollars.
  • Three of its students received Promise Scholarships covering their tuition for four years.

Rodriguez said his hope is LAUP will continue to inspire, equip and empower.

“We started an ‘inspire’ initiative, where we tell the stories of Latinos or Latino allies in our community who are doing great things that youth and adults can see themselves in and see that it is possible that we can be part of that and to highlight that person or that group,” he said. “(We) ‘equip’ through our programs and our services, and then ‘empower’ through our practice opportunities, whether it be internships or opportunities to lead or opportunities to serve.”

He said LAUP wants to keep making an impact on youth, which is why the organization is expanding the ¡Adelante! Program to include eighth-graders. He also wants to increase the number of Latinx leaders emerging from its adult programs.

“I want to see more Latinx leaders and Latinos … representing our community,” he said. “We make up almost 25% of the city of Holland, and there should be opportunities and pathways for us to be not only in the entry-level roles, which are so important, and we need those, but we also need representation at those executive- and those director-level roles.”

To that end, Rodriguez is planning to add a LAUP career pathway program called El Camino (“the way”). He also plans to increase LAUP’s advocacy for immigration reform as a solution to the labor shortage.

Rodriguez said he believes Latinx people culturally tend to have an attitude of humility and have been conditioned to keep their heads down and not speak up, but he wants LAUP to communicate to West Michigan “that LAUP and Latinos have been here for a really long time and are a part of this story,” especially in terms of their representation in the workforce of Holland. 

“We need to start (being) looked at as talent, and not just a workforce, and be invested in as an organization,” he said. “We need more funding, and we need more partners to come around us. … We understand that the need and the work that needs to be done is not the responsibility or the capacity of just one organization.”

More information about LAUP, including ways to get involved, is at laup.org.

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