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Nonprofit profile of CARAS: Local Latino community activists celebrated at awards event

Eleanor Villarreal given Legacy Award for her social work

Published in the May 24 – June 6, 2017 issue of Morgan Hill Life

By Marty Cheek

Photo courtesy CARAS Community champions, from left, Claudia Rossi, Gemma Abels, Eleanor Villarreal (sitting), Patricia Mondragon, Edwin Lopez, and Latino Family Fund co-chairs Edwin Diaz and Delia Diaz.

Cinco de Mayo brought a special celebration honoring people and organizations of the South Valley community who improve local lives.

The Community Champions Breakfast held May 5 at downtown Gilroy’s Old City Hall Restaurant started with mariachi music, followed by seven awards putting a spotlight on the work of local activists. The annual event is a fundraiser organized by CARAS (Community Agency for Resources, Advocacy and Services) to bring together leaders in government, business, social work and education who work for the underserved.

“This morning, we’re going to recognize the leaders of the community who fulfilled the dreams of Cesar Chavez, the dreams that have to do with change and leadership and community service,” said Latino Family Fund leader Ernie Olivares in his opening remarks. “These community champions do this on an on-going basis and you never hear them seeking attention or asking for recognition. Their service is very much appreciated because it goes to the heart of our community.”

The 2017 community champions honorees are:

Legacy: Eleanor Villarreal, Rebekah Children’s advocate

Education: Patricia Mondragon, principal South Valley Middle School

Community: Gemma Abels, president of the Morgan Hill Federation of Teachers

Youth: Edwin Lopez, student at South Valley Middle School

Business: CRESCO, equipment rental in Gilroy

Government: Claudia Rossi, member of the Santa Clara County Board of Education

Nonprofit: Latino Family Fund de Gilroy

Photo by Marty Cheek
The Mariachi Estelar band performs at the Cinco de Mayo celebration of the 2017 Community Champions Breakfast honoring those who have helped the community.

The Gilroy-based CARAS was founded in 2011 with a mission “committed to the empowerment of the community, and the betterment of Latino families, through leadership development, advocacy, and cultural awareness,” said Art Barron, board president. It started when local citizens saw a void in community social justice and so created a group of leaders to help those who might be wronged by some agency.

South Valley Middle School Principal Patricia Mondragon presented the Youth Award to Edwin Lopez, 12, who stays active in social justice pursuits. In February, inspired by his hero Cesar Chavez, he stood with about 200 other people in a peaceful demonstration at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency office in Morgan Hill to protest recent federal immigration policies.

“This is a student who has astonished me ever since I first saw him,” Mondragon said. “He is such a great role model and I am so fortunate to have him as a student.”

In receiving his award, Lopez told the breakfast guests, “This award means a lot to me and thank you for having us here and supporting CARAS and all the Hispanic community.”

Gemma Abels began working as a teacher in Morgan Hill in 1996. Over the years, she mentored other teachers, students and former students. She is now the statewide vice president of the California Federation of Teachers as well as the vice president of the South Bay Labor Council. She co-founded the coalition group South Valley Resistance, which advocates for immigrants’ rights and social justice.

“I accept (this Community Award) for all the teachers in Morgan Hill,” she said. “We in our classrooms try to develop communities that not only accept diversity but celebrate diversity so that every child can learn from each other.”

Student Lopez presented the Education Award to Mondragon.

“This award goes to a woman who really inspires everyone, not only me but the whole community,” he said. “She is my school teachers and is personally one of the best teachers in schools that I have ever had.”

This school year was Mondragon’s first working as principal. Previously she worked a teacher at South Valley. During her career, she has seen how the Gilroy community supports education through activities such as the Youth in Philanthropy program where Latino Family Fund mentors help students decide on how to present $500 grants for community benefit.

She also advocates pride in the Latino culture among the families at South Valley.

“We’re providing our students the education needed to be part of the 21st century global economy,” she said. “And one of those really important things is them being bilingual. Close to 90 percent of our students at South Valley come from the Latino community. They know Spanish, they understand it, but they need to go ahead and foster their pride in their language and in their culture. They need to know they have a very, very important skill that will help them in their professions and in their community.”