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May 25, 2021

Latino Center of the Midlands launches its own internship, summer jobs program

The Latino Center of the Midlands expects to connect about 35 South Omaha teenagers with paid summer internships this year through a newly expanded program aimed at helping students gain work experience while preparing for careers.

The center will work with the Nebraska Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to find employers in fields in which the young people have an interest, said Albert Varas, executive director of the nonprofit Latino Center.

“One of the goals of this program is to provide a connection to more of a career than just a job,” Varas said. “It’s about being able to expose the kids to more rewarding careers, as opposed to just surviving.”

The program is funded by $225,000 in private donations. Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert said Friday that she will propose that the city contribute $25,000. Federal funding through Heartland Workforce Solutions will help support the paid summer internships.

Varas said the internships initially will serve youths from its Pathways to Success program, which is based in six public schools in three school districts: Omaha, Bellevue and Ralston.

“Teenagers from more affluent families are more likely to land such internships through family connections,” Varas said.

The application process will be competitive. It will “seek students who have demonstrated a commitment to learning and growth and have expressed career interest,” according to a Latino Center backgrounder.

“We’re looking at kids who are interested in jobs, in pursuing careers,” Varas said.

The Latino Center will seek to match them with internships that fit their interests, such as real estate agencies, law offices or accounting firms. Varas said the jobs will be at some of the approximately 70 member businesses of the Nebraska Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

“If there are any gaps, we have a commitment from the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce to fill the gaps,” Varas said.

The program will not be limited to Latino youths.

“Our primary group of kids that we serve are Latinos, but we have kids from all different backgrounds,” Varas said.

The Latino Center also plans to provide multimedia communications internships year-round for another group of youths. The center will work with Omaha South High School, Telemundo Nebraska (KOHA-LD) and Radio Lobo (KBBX-FM) on that program.

The students will work on social media and communications needs of the Latino Center, Varas said.

The Latino Center had partnered for several years with the Empowerment Network Step-Up summer jobs program,but is not doing so this year.

“We felt like we could do a better job serving our population,” Varas said.

“Step-Up has done a good job in North Omaha but has underperformed in South Omaha,” Stothert said.

She said the city has been told that there will be fewer South Omaha kids in Step-Up this year than last. “So, we are going in a different direction in South Omaha for Latino youths.”

She said the $25,000 will be an initial contribution to the Latino Center program, and she expects the city to help expand the program in the future.

Meanwhile, South Omaha community activist Ben Salazar is starting another summer jobs program through his nonprofit organization, La Casa del Pueblo. Salazar said he is recruiting businesses to hire South Omaha youths. He said he’s working with the Nebraska Urban Indian Health Coalition and the Nebraska Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

That effort is not connected with the Latino Center.

A former bilingual newspaper publisher, Salazar began going door to door to South Omaha businesses recently, seeking people willing to hire youths. He said several businesses have said they expect to be able to match summer jobs with young people who need them.

Omaha City Councilman Vinny Palermo said he supports Salazar’s efforts.

“Ben’s doing what’s lacking in South Omaha: knocking on doors, looking for jobs for young people,” Palermo said.

Salazar has been a frequent critic of the Step-Up program. The City of Omaha has allocated federal Community Development Block Grant money to Step-Up since 2012, targeting high-poverty census tracts in North and South Omaha. Salazar filed complaints in 2013 and again in 2018, noting the relatively low participation of Hispanic youths in Step-Up. He alleged that the city and Empowerment Network were discriminating against Hispanic youths by not making the same efforts to recruit them as it did to recruit African American youths.

The city and the Empowerment Network denied they were discriminating. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development investigated both complaints. The department recommended corrective actions after the 2013 complaint.

In the 2018 complaint, HUD concluded that the city and Empowerment Network had not engaged in discrimination. But the investigators noted that even though the numbers of Hispanics in the program had increased in recent years due to increased recruitment and follow-up, they were still relatively low.

HUD recommended several other steps for the city and Empowerment Network to serve more Hispanic youths through Step-Up.

Willie Barney, president of the Empowerment Network, said Step-Up serves young people citywide and has been increasing its numbers of South Omaha participants each year. He said the nonprofit continues to work with several agencies in South Omaha, including the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Midlands, Girls Inc., Police Athletics for Community Engagement, and Omaha South and Bryan High Schools.

“We look forward to working with the Latino Center on other projects in the future and wish them well with their new internship program,” Barney said. “This will provide even more opportunities for the youth of our city.”


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