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February 11, 2009 > Jaime Jaramillo: Centro de Servicios' Beacon of Hope

Jaime Jaramillo: Centro de Servicios' Beacon of Hope

By Simon Wong

One of the commemorative items for Union City's 50th Anniversary is the Official 2009 Calendar depicting the community's Unsung Heroes.

February 2009 features Jaime Jaramillo. He is best known for his association with Centro de Servicios. The organization was recognized as Community Partner by Assemblyman Alberto Torrico at the 2008 State of the 20th Assembly District Awards Ceremony.

"Jaime Jaramillo began serving on the board of Centro de Servicios shortly after co-founding the organization in 1974. He has been Centro's Executive Director since 1996. Each year, Centro de Servicios helps more than 10,000 local residents in need of food, clothes, shelter, legal aid and educational services," said Rhonda Rigenhagen.

"As a member of the Union City Lions Club, Jaramillo has also travelled to Mexico to participate in a clinic to provide eye glasses to hundreds of people who could not otherwise afford them."

Centro was founded in response to a need to provide services to the predominantly Hispanic community in the Decoto area.

In 1993, despite Jaramillo's opposition, Centro was taken over by another agency that eventually decided to close the office in 1995. Around that time, former Police Chief Al Guzman's Community Policing Program wanted to partner with an agency that had an established presence in the community. Doing so revived Centro. The City of Union City purchased the premises. Jaramillo was Chairman of the transition team.

While working as a Court Investigator in Fremont, Jaramillo was offered a job with Centro. Although he loved the court work, he wanted to work in his community and was appointed as Centro's Executive Director in 1996.

"When I became staff, I realized how bad a Board member I had been," he said self-deprecatingly, "and that staff need the support of the Board. Our Board is very supportive and we have great staff.

"We made changes that require more participation from the community. We occupy City-owned premises, rent-free. The City is an excellent partner. Our community store is a magnet for many people whose problems become apparent through conversation and they end up being referred to us.

"We partner with other agencies. Centro was established as a referral agency that would locate other agencies to provide clients with the help that they needed. This was unsatisfactory because some of them would simply refer the clients elsewhere. Consequently, we decided the agencies that could solve the problem should see our clients in our offices or provide the service ourselves. This approach means that we know that our clients receive the help they need. That is how our own Legal Aid Department was formed," explained Jaramillo. His law degree and court experience have proved invaluable.

The sixty-two year-old Vietnam veteran is a listener. He understands that lending an ear is as important as the other services that are available to Centro's clients. "Working here is very humbling. The fact that people arrive with a problem and then leave thanking you even though you might not have said much is very satisfying," said Centro's Executive Director.

His philosophy is to never turn away anyone in need. All, who go to Centro, are treated with dignity and respect and receive the help that they need to be able to leave with renewed hope. "It doesn't matter who they are; they receive help" said Jaramillo. This is why he finds his job so rewarding. If staff members do not have the personal expertise to help, they will find a way to assist.

He tells the story of the Chinese couple and their young child who sought help shortly after the office opened. He was still moving into his office and had only just started to unpack. Some model ships were on display. The gentleman could not speak English and his wife spoke only a little. Nevertheless, once the problem was understood, they received the medical help and immigration advice that they needed. Centro neither expects people to remain in contact nor tracks them once they have left.

When Jaramillo developed a back problem, a friend told him that she knew a Chinese doctor who could treat him. On arrival, Jaramillo recognized the man but could not be sure who he was because of the different context. His friend, who speaks Chinese, interpreted for them. "You're the man with all the ships. He says that you gave him hope. He will take care of you."

"If the problem is too big to solve, such as home foreclosure, we provide alternatives and help the client realize a solution to create a lifeline. Hopefully, we achieve something. Although the client might feel like it's the end of the world, it isn't, because there are other options. We want to guide him through that second door of opportunity and out of the problem," said Jaramillo, philosophically.

Centro's reputation has spread far and wide. Clients come from the Central Valley. People call from as far afield as New York City and Mexico for advice.

At times, the small organization is overwhelmed by the sheer number of clients. Those with time-sensitive problems may be referred to a Hayward-based for-profit business that does very similar work and with which Centro has close ties. "Sometimes this has to happen but we have referred them to an organization that we know can help them," said Jaramillo.

Jaramillo takes his work home with him. He often wonders how clients have fared. He still makes time, however, to serve with other public bodies. Supervisor Gail Steel appointed him to the Veteran Affairs Commission of Alameda County to represent Vietnam veterans for District 5. He would like to volunteer with the VA when he eventually retires. He is also a member of Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Mr Jaramillo and his wife, Carmen who has worked at the Ralph & Mary Ruggieri Senior Center since it opened in 1998, celebrate their Ruby Wedding Anniversary this year.

For more details about Centro de Servicios, visit www.unioncity.org. For more details about Union City's 50th Anniversary, visit www.UnionCity50.com.

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