It took several years and a couple of gentle nudges in the direction of progress, but a streamlined support system for local Latinos is finally taking shape.
Three Indianapolis not-for-profit agencies are giving up their own identities-and autonomy-to populate La Plaza Inc., an organization that aims to position itself as the place for the burgeoning Hispanic community to look for help.
"When you have three or four groups working with minimal budgets and overlapping services, it can get confusing," said Charles Garcia, a local businessman and president of La Plaza's board. "Where do you go? Which one do you give money to?"
The answer, he says, is simple: La Plaza.
Indianapolis' Hispanic Education Center and Fiesta Inc. already have dissolved their own operations to join La Plaza, and eastside social-service agency El Centro Hispano is in the final stages of doing the same.
Independently, the organizations delivered a range of programs from adult literacy to cultural events, college scholarships to immigration advice. Together, Garcia said, they can do even more.
"We want to expand services," he said, and will work to that end when funding becomes available.
The groups' combined budgets now total $750,000. He'd like to quadruple that in the next two years as the new organization comes into its own.
"The Latino community has reached critical mass," Garcia said, citing the nearly 300-percent increase in the city's Hispanic population between 1990 and 2000. "I think Indianapolis is ready to invest in that."
"It is time to empower local Latino organizations, and this is an excellent way to do it," concurred Ricardo Gambetta, the city's director of Latino affairs. "It is going to make a difference."
Merging the various agencies will eliminate any duplicative services and allow the new entity to realize some administrative efficiencies-both moves that tend to please donors.
"We are supportive of this effort," said Ellen Annala, president of United Way of Central Indiana, which provides El Centro with about $140,000 a year. It will transfer the money to La Plaza when the merger is complete. "In this case, the whole really is stronger than the sum of its parts."
That's the idea, said Raul Zavaleta, a local business consultant and former La Plaza president.
When La Plaza was incorporated in 2001, the idea was for it to act as an umbrella for the partners, which would maintain their identities.
That didn't work, Zavaleta said, because the individual agencies still had their own missions to fulfill and their own programs to sustain. The notion of a complete merger surfaced about a year ago, and the partners agreed to it in October.
HEC and Fiesta operations were folded into La Plaza effective Dec. 31. The El Centro merger should be complete by mid-March, Garcia said.
One of the original partners is not joining La Plaza, however. The Indianapolis Hispanic Chamber of Commerce will collaborate on the agency's economic development efforts, but maintain its independence.
Keeping its federal 501(c)6 tax-exempt status will allow the Hispanic chamber to continue to do lobbying and advocacy work, actions prohibited for charitable organizations like La Plaza.
Even so, chamber representatives will serve on the La Plaza board and believe wholeheartedly in what it's trying to do.
"It goes a long, long way toward helping the Hispanic community unite," said Tom O'Neil, the chamber's immediate past president.