Some people think of the Latin American Youth Center as an island of caring, creativity, and vitality in northwest Washington, D.C. Indeed, LAYC’s bright, colorful building stands in stark contrast to graffiti-scarred walls in the surrounding Columbia Heights neighborhood. But Executive Director Lori Kaplan prefers to think of it as a bridge – to cultural identity, to wider opportunities, to services and supports that will strengthen youth and their families.
Founded in 1974 to serve Latino youth whose families were new to the United States and feeling isolated, LAYC supported those young people in defining their needs and finding their own constructive solutions to them. “In the beginning, it was a place where teens, 16-year-olds, 17-year-olds, came every day after school, says Kaplan. Today, the center’s range of programs – education, counseling, housing, employment, health services, arts, and recreation – exists not only for youth, but also for their extended families.
The center has served a diverse group from the beginning. “We were formed and founded by Latinos, but we serve and support any child, youth, or family member who needs help,” Kaplan says. Today’s clients – 5,000 a year – also come from Vietnamese, African, African-American, and Caribbean communities.
For Minerva Lazo, LAYC has been a bridge back to her family and her own dreams in troubled times. As a sixth-grader, she became close to an LAYC counselor, who realized Minerva was having trouble at home. The center’s free counseling program helped Minerva and her mother, a native of El Salvador, cross the cultural gap that was beginning to divide them. Lazo, now 20, realizes that counseling helped her understand more about her mother, whose life in a family with 13 children forced expression to take a back seat to survival.
Lazo enjoyed LAYC’s arts and computer programs and took advantage of tutoring opportunities. But by 10th grade, she drifted away from the center, dropped out of school, and discovered she was pregnant. She knew where to turn. The LAYC staff helped her enroll in the center’s Next Step Public Charter School so that she could earn her GED and take parenting classes. She later graduated from the center’s Youthbuild program, which provides education and job training, and then spent a year in AmeriCorps. As a student at the University of the District of Columbia, Lazo now works part time at LAYC.
Someday, Lazo would like to open a childcare center of her own, which is exactly as Lori Kaplan thinks it should be. “I see a lot of young people working around the community who came out of the program,” she says with pride. “You see the fruits of your labors.”
Latin American Youth Center is a 2002 Honoree of Families Count, the national honors program that recognizes organizations that are making a difference in the lives of families struggling to survive in tough neighborhoods.