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Higher education important for growth of Latino workforce in Willmar

Shelby Lindrud / Tribune Lunch with Leaders brought Amelia Amor, from left, Javier Valenzuela and Robert Valdez together to talk about the challenges and opportunities for the Latino community in Willmar.

WILLMAR — When asked what one of the biggest challenges for the Latino community in Willmar was, three Latino business leaders focused on the need for more mentors for the young, to press the importance of higher education and a strong work ethic.

"In Latino culture, it takes a village," said Javier Valenzuela of Bremer Bank.

Valenzuela, along with Amelia Amor of CLUES and Robert Valdez of Fiesta Time Rentals, were presenters at the Dec. 20 Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce Lunch with Leaders, which focused on the Latino community.

"There are so many opportunities, if we focus on our kids," Valdez said. "They need to be exposed to people that look like them."

For many of Willmar's Latino families, they have been in the United States for years, if not decades. Over time they have integrated into the area, and now have similar concerns about their children and the community's future.

"Your problems have become our problems," Valdez said.

The trio want to see more emphasis put on higher education for today's school children, so they will have the skills needed for higher paying jobs.

"How do you shift a whole family's mindset to putting that core education value?" Amor said.

Having that extra education, whether its a two-year or four-year degree, could mean a better quality of life with fewer working hours needed to make a comfortable living along with a more diverse workforce in management and administration type positions.

"It is a business decision," Valdez said, especially because it significantly increases a person's earning potential over their working life.

Each of the individuals on the panel either work in or volunteer to help the Latino community grow and prosper.

Amor works for CLUES, or Comunidades Latinas Unidas en Servicio, a service organization for Latinos, to connect them to skills, resources and institutions which can help engage and empower them in the community. Amor is in Willmar as part of a Latino Workforce Initiative partnership which partnered CLUES with Ridgewater College, Bethesda Willmar and Rice Memorial Hospital to provide certified nursing assistant training to Latinos. The program also helps with employment support.

For the past several months Amor has helped around 10 participants through the program and now four of them have jobs either at Rice or Bethesda, while another continues their education and another looks for employment closer to home in Morris.

"This was to give them an opportunity to obtain a job at better pay and not have to work high hours," Amor said.

Both Valdez and Valenzuela work with the Latino Service Provider Network. It originally formed in 2006 with help from a grant, but continued on after the grant money ran out. Today the network has about 33 members, though not all of them are Latino. They come from different businesses, organizations, nonprofits and governments. The goal is to help connect those in the Latino community to the services, programs, employment and educational opportunities and assistance they may need.

"That is the success part of it," Valenzuela said.

Also making a comeback is the annual Cinco De Mayo celebration.

"We restarted it just last year again," Valenzuela said.

In addition to being a wonderful and inclusive celebration of Latino culture, it is also another networking opportunity for the community and a chance to learn about what is available.

"It is the first point of contact," Valdez said. "It is a good access point."

The celebration is also helping with the push to get more Latino youth interested in higher education. All profits from the event go to a scholarship fund.

"My vision has always been to give back to the community," Valdez said.

To make the Latino community as successful as possible, the trio at Lunch for Leaders continued to press the need for involvement in all aspects of the community's life — from education to volunteering at events.

"We need people willing to participate," Valenzuela said.