The Latino Commission: Our Name in the Game

Submitted by: 01/14/2014 by Maureen Fitzgerald

The Latino Commission, based in San Francisco, began in 1991 with a mission to provide substance abuse treatment services to the area’s Hispanic and Latino population.

“At that time, people with minor crimes related to an alcohol or drug offense were sent to jail,” says Debra Camarillo, Executive Director. “Some offenders could avoid the jail sentence by entering a treatment program. That option was not available to Spanish-speaking offenders, since there were no bilingual/bicultural programs available.”

The Latino Commission addressed that need by opening Casa Maria, a women’s residential treatment program. The agency has grown to include linguistically and culturally relevant residential, transitional, and outpatient programs in three counties: San Mateo, San Francisco, and Tulare.

Hispanics and Latinos in the United States make up 16.7 percent of the U.S. population today. They have become the largest racial or ethnic group in California and are projected to become a majority by 2020.

With passage of the Affordable Care Act, millions of Hispanics will be newly eligible for health insurance that includes coverage for mental health and substance abuse treatment, underscoring the pressing need for bilingual/bicultural services. The Latino Commission offers a unique bilingual/bicultural program to serve that growing population.

To help her team prepare for 2014 and build their capacity to serve more clients, Camarillo and members of her team at the Latino Commission participated in the BHBusiness: Mastering Essential Business Operations Strategic Planning Learning Network (March–September 2013).

Staff who participated included Camarillo along with Lynette Akiona, Salvador Blancas, Substance Abuse Counselor for the men’s residential facility, Phyllis Lozano, Associate Director of Administration, and Doren Martin, Fund Developer.

“We were attracted to this training because it really concentrates on preparing agencies for the changes underway with health care reform,” says Camarillo.

The team was excited to expand their knowledge of strategic planning. “It made us focus on who we are and what we do best, and allowed us to define our mission and vision,” says Lozano. “We learned the theory behind strategic planning and how to turn that into direct services.”

The team also appreciated the opportunity to network with other agencies going through the same process as well as having the support of expert coach Jay Ford.

Homework for the course included defining new core values, along with a mission and vision statement. “To do this, we got feedback from the entire group as well as donors and the public,” says Camarillo.

The work they completed in the Learning Network helped the team recognize that they need to increase the agency’s visibility with funders as well as clients. “We needed to figure out how to get our name in the game,” comments Camarillo. Getting approval from the board of directors to fund a public relations position to create outreach materials and a marketing plan is a high priority.

The agency has also been working on updating their website to highlight the agency’s bicultural character. From the logo featuring flags of the many nations that represent the home countries of potential clients, to staff bios that celebrate their cultural roots, The Latino Commission website sends a welcoming message.

“Charting the unknown waters of health care reform is challenging,” says Camarillo. “Participating in a learning network is like adding a sail to your ship. It helps clarify your direction and what it takes to get you there. I encourage every agency to participate in a BH Business Learning Network if you have the opportunity. It is a wonderful resource!”

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