CLILA celebrates 15 years of helping Dalton's Hispanic community

·4 min read

Jun. 24—Brandon Fraire said Saturdays are his favorite part of volunteering with the Coalition of Latino Leaders (CLILA), a Dalton-based Hispanic civil rights and social service organization.

"Children can come in and get help with homework. We have an English class, where people can come in and learn English," said Fraire, a CLILA board member. "I've had the opportunity to come in and take part in those classes, and it's really exiting to see the collaboration."

CLILA recently celebrated its 15th anniversary. It was founded in 2006 by America Gruner, who had moved to Dalton to work as a translator for the booming Hispanic population.

In 1980, the Census Bureau reported there were 526 Hispanic residents in Whitfield County, 237 in Dalton. By 1990, the census found there were 2,321 Hispanics in Whitfield County, with 1,422 in Dalton. And by the 2000 census, the bureau reported 18,419 Hispanics in Whitfield County, with 11,219 in Dalton.

Gruner said she realized many of those people were recent immigrants from Mexico and Central America and lacked the language skills and cultural knowledge to navigate the school system here and find the resources their families needed.

"(CLILA) was created by people from Dalton and we have been here in Dalton," she said. "We are here working really hard. We are all volunteers and even though we have no funding we have done a lot."

Rosalinda Carrizales took English classes from CLILA, and later took classes to help her obtain U.S. citizenship. She said CLILA was vital to her obtaining her U.S. citizenship.

"It gives you peace of mind to know that you can get assistance and find resources from someone who speaks your language," she said.

Pointing to CLILA's accomplishments, Gruner said the organization has:

—Registered hundreds of Hispanics to vote and provided voter education and bilingual candidate forums.

—Held citizenship classes and helped hundreds of people to become citizens.

—Advocated for immigration reform and for the Latino community when facing anti-immigrant programs.

—Acted as an intermediary between Dalton's Hispanic community and elected officials on issues affecting the community.

—Organized the annual Latino Taste Festival to showcase the diversity and richness of Latino traditions and food.

Marlen Rodriguez-Sandoval recently joined the board.

"I had heard about CLILA for several years, but I really learned about CLILA when I was a student at Dalton State College in the social work program," she said. "I found out about the impact they have had on the Latino community in the Dalton area. Whether you are someone who has moved to the area from Latin America or someone who grew up here, CLILA offers a sense of community, a place you can turn to for help and for resources."

Board member Jose Morales also first heard about CLILA when he was a student in Dalton State's social work program in 2009.

"That program requires students to go out into the community and put in some volunteer hours to get to know the various service organizations in the community," he said. "At that time, I helped with the homework club, a program that brings kids in and helped them with their math, reading, things the parents might not be able to do because of the language barrier."

Morales said he saw the importance of the work done by CLILA and continued to volunteer after fulfilling his class obligations.

"You've heard the quote 'If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime,'" he said. "Well, CLILA has a big focus on education, not just for children but for adults as well. We have English classes and citizenship classes. We help them register to vote."

Arely Sanchez and her mother Veronica are both CLILA board members. Arely said she was a small child when her family moved to Dalton

"If not for CLILA, we probably would have gone back to Mexico because we didn't know how to get assistance," she said.

Gruner said during the past 15 years the needs of Dalton's Hispanic community have changed and CLILA has changed with them. While it still helps parents and students flourish in k-12 education, it now also helps them with college applications and applications for federal student aid.

Recently, the organization has been working to get members of Dalton's Hispanic community vaccinated for COVID-19, providing Spanish-language information on the vaccines and helping to organize a drive-thru clinic on the east side of Dalton, where many Hispanics live.

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