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story.lead_photo.caption Courtesy of Cristhia Castro via Catholic MissourianThe new Jefferson City headquarters for El Puente Hispanic Ministry at 2709 Industrial Drive Suite B is well-suited to the variety of services the agency offers to Hispanic people in the area.

The new headquarters for El Puente in Jefferson City isn't just a venue for Hispanic ministry. It's a doorway to the future.

"We have a new home, and it will help us serve the community in creative new ways and continue to build bridges that unite the Hispanic community and the broader community — all of which is the community of God," El Puente Executive Director Cristhia Castro said.

"We're not just serving a need but a community with needs," she noted.

Sponsored by the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, the Catholic Diocese of Jefferson City and local parishes, El Puente is a separate, nonprofit agency offering an array of services to the Hispanic communities in and near Jefferson City and California.

The staff recently moved from its longtime location on East McCarty Street in Jefferson City to 2709 Industrial Drive, Suite B — within sight of the Cathedral of St. Joseph and the Alphonse J. Schwartze Memorial Catholic Center.

"We're now closer to many of the clients we serve," Castro noted. "It's a place where people can come and request information and ask for help, and we can serve them on a more one-on-one basis."

She said the new location isn't quite as large, but the layout is perfect.

"I think it's plenty for what God is bidding us to do next," she said.

That, she believes, includes helping connect Hispanic immigrants and their families with even more of the people and resources they need to become engaged, successful and faith-filled members of society.

"We don't have the resources to do everything for everybody," she said. "But we can reach out to other agencies and work with them to get people the help they need."

El Puente's mission is "to make present the healing love of Jesus, the Incarnate Word, promoting human dignity through a ministry of presence and outreach to the Hispanic community."

Five people — Castro, Incarnate Word Sister Bertha Flores Almeida, Incarnate Word Sister Guadalupe Ruz, Incarnate Word Sister Christi Sanchez, and Nena Neal — serve as bilingual, bicultural liaisons between Spanish-speaking immigrants from Mexico, Central and South America, and the neighborhoods and faith communities they are eager to become a part of.

In addition to accompanying people to doctor's appointments and providing language-interpretation services, the staff and volunteers help individuals and families overcome obstacles to fulfilling the dreams that brought them here.

They provide information about finances and nutrition and connect people with short-term assistance and long-term resources.

Through the COVID-19 pandemic, they've also been working with Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri to help process assistance requests from Spanish-speaking people throughout the Jefferson City diocese.

"I'm really excited that we're connecting with other organizations," Castro said. "We don't want to compete or duplicate services. We want to work together to help make all the available resources known and accessible to the Hispanic community."

For instance, adults still getting acclimated to a new country, a new culture and a new language often need help finding housing and employment and enrolling their children in school.

They might also need assistance helping their children with homework, navigating the technology for at home "virtual education," planning their finances for college and applying for scholarships and financial aid.

Meanwhile, organizations such as Catholic Charities and the Boys & Girls Club have sought help marketing their services to Spanish-speaking families.

"This has really opened a new perspective of what else El Puente can do for people in surrounding areas," Castro said. "We're finding many different opportunities as we go. A good example is the sisters providing a ministry of presence by phone and online."

One of the founding objectives of El Puente in 1999 was to identify and cultivate leadership among people within the diverse Hispanic communities in the Jefferson City and California areas.

That remains a key priority for El Puente and the various other manifestations of Catholic Hispanic ministry throughout the diocese.

Several recently ordained Hispanic deacons and volunteers helped paint and remodel El Puente's new building, and other volunteers helped pack up and clean the old building and unpack at the new one.

"That's what we're looking for: to work together with the different communities, going beyond Jefferson City," Castro said. "After all, we're all brothers and sisters and are all in need."

The new location has plenty of open space for tutoring children and teens and hosting informational gatherings for their parents.

Anyone who can help, especially offering two to three hours a week, would be an answer to prayer, Castro said.

"Now that students have the option for virtual education during the COVID-19 pandemic, we want to find mentors and tutors — not only to help the students with their subjects, but their parents to participate in their kids' virtual education via Launch," she said, referring to an online education platform provided through the Jefferson City School District.

Likewise, some parents need guidance in planning ahead to pay for college and helping their children apply for scholarships and financial aid.

"I believe it is important to help parents to manage their finances by providing them with the tools such as educational resources to accomplish their financial goals," Castro said. "They work so hard to earn their money, but if they don't know how to manage it, they will not have savings in case of an emergency, money to buy a house or money to send their kids to college."

Castro is eager to get the word out not only about the new location but the new services El Puente hopes to offer.

"Our core services will never go away," she said. "But with the pandemic, we're seeing needs and new ways of serving the community that we never thought of before."

For instance, El Puente is working to start a program this fall to help people who don't have insurance pay their medical and dental bills.

The new location is not a new beginning, just the next phase in a ministry that's been going for 20-plus years.

"We're not starting over or reinventing ourselves," Castro said. "We keep moving forward. We now have the knowledge and community recognition that we didn't have 20 years ago, and we're working to get better so we can continue serving 20, 40 or 60 more years."

She hopes that with the right kind of help from El Puente and the larger community, immigrants in need will become financially fit and contributing members of their churches and society.

"Ten years from now, I would like to see their kids in college," she said. "I want the parents to know English and be financially independent. I want to hear about how they have accomplished to manage their money so they bought a house and paid off their cars. I want to know that they're taking care of their health.

"And, of course, we want the children from a very young age to have an encounter with Jesus and always be getting closer to God by attending Catholic schools," she said.

This article was republished with permission from the Catholic Missourian.

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