Kent’s Lopez Center gets new lease on life

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Roberto Gonzalez

Roberto Gonzalez

Roberto Gonzales expects new management to give a much-needed boost to the Lucy Lopez Community Center in Kent.

The Lopez Center board of directors reached an agreement last week with Seattle-based Sea Mar Community Health Center to manage the nonprofit cultural and education facility set up to serve a growing Latino population as well others in the city.

“I think with Sea Mar we’ll be able to provide services,” Gonzalez said. “I’m very excited. They have the experience and resources. They’ve been around for 30 years.”

Sea Mar is a community-based organization that provides comprehensive health and human services to diverse communities. The company specializes in service to Latinos. Sea Mar has locations throughout Western Washington, but this will be its first program in Kent.

“We’re going to help out the (Lopez Center) board of directors in any way we can to get it up and running,” said Rogelio Riojas, executive director of Sea Mar Community Health Centers. “Kent is a large city and there is a lot of need here.”

The Lopez Center, at the southeast corner of Washington Avenue and James Street near downtown, includes a classroom, conference room and two offices in a converted house.

Riojas said the tutoring classes for children and the adult-education classes offered at the Lopez Center provide a good starting base. The center offers English lessons to help with citizenship tests as well as computer courses.

“We will help out those programs,” Riojas said. “This community has not had a community center and it’s important to have access. We’re here to help that.”

Gonzalez, the founder of the Lucy Lopez Center and president of the volunteer board of directors, said the hours of the center have been limited since it opened last year. Gonzalez would like to see the center open daily and expects a big boost with Sea Mar’s help. Sea Mar will help determine the hours of the center once it hires staff in the next couple of weeks.

“I feel they know what to do,” said Gonzalez, who owns the Mexico Lindo restaurant in downtown Kent. “They know how to serve a community’s needs.”

Kent Mayor Suzette Cooke attended a party Nov. 17 at the Lopez Center to announce the management contract with Sea Mar.

“I’m thrilled that the Lucy Lopez Center will work with Sea Mar and their strength of management,” Cooke said. “It’ll be a win-win.”

Cooke expects the management agreement to help the facility grow.

“I know about the dreams of the board and it takes time and hands-on management to operate,” Cooke said. “The people on the board have day jobs. The 30 years of experience of Sea Mar makes a great marriage. They’ll reach out to the non-English community and help jump-start the program to build the base. Sea Mar is ideal for doing that.”

The management-contract agreement between Sea Mar and the Lopez Center is for up to one year, but could be shorter once the Lopez Center board can run the operation on its own.

“As soon as they receive funding, we’ll turn it back to them,” Riojas said. “We want them to be independent.”

Riojas said the Lopez Center board could be ready to hire its own executive director in as soon as three to six months. Sea Mar will provide on-site staff, a mix of paid staff and volunteers, until that time.

Sea Mar will answer to the Lopez Center board of directors.

“We don’t intend to take any profit,” Riojas said. “We are here to develop a sister organization. There’s enough people in need for everybody.”

The company has no plans to add health-care programs at the center because those services are offered by other groups in the city.

While programs at the center are directed at the Latino community, the center is open to anyone, Gonzalez said.

Sea Mar’s primary goal will be to find funding for the Lopez Center.

“I’m pretty confident it will work out well,” Riojas said. “We’ll help find resources to meet their needs and help them look for funding. We have a lot of experience in fund-raising from local, state, county and federal grants to private foundations.”

The center was named after Lopez, a pioneer of the Puget Sound area Mexican restaurant industry who migrated to Seattle from Jalisco in the late 1950s and eventually opened her own restaurant. She later helped many others, including Gonzalez, get their start in the restaurant business.

Now Gonzalez hopes to get a community center off the ground with the help of Sea Mar.

“We started from scratch,” Riojas said about Sea Mar. “We didn’t have support of other organizations. We know about the need to develop resources.”

For more information about the Lopez Center, call Roberto Gonzalez at 253-854-5320.

For more information about Sea Mar, go to www.seamar.org.


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