Good Neighbor

5 August 2013

Photo by Bob Stefko

RaymundoA few years ago, Raul Raymundo ’87 met a student who was living at home in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood and attending a nearby university. The young man and his seven family members shared a two-bedroom apartment. “I asked him, ‘Where do you study and when?’ Raymundo recalls. “And he said, ‘In the bathroom at two o’clock in the morning.’ ”

Knowing that other kids from low-income families in the area were in the same situation, Raymundo decided to develop a residence hall–style building for college students who can’t afford to stay in their schools’ dormitories. Believed to be the first of its kind in the country, La Casa is owned and operated by the Resurrection Project (TRP), a Pilsen-based social enterprise organization that Raymundo cofounded in 1990 with Catholic priests and local residents. La Casa provides students with a safe, affordable, and supportive place to live and study, and it complements TRP’s other efforts to provide affordable housing options to families and seniors.

Raymundo also grew up in a crowded two-bedroom apartment in Pilsen, a Latino neighborhood on the city’s Lower West Side. “I was fortunate to go away to Carleton,” he says, noting that he was the first member of his family to earn a college degree. “I had the opportunity to be in a conducive learning environment, but a lot of students in this area are not going to a place like Carleton. Why not bring a Carleton experience to them?”

Residence halls like La Casa (open to any student based on income only) can help close the Latino achievement gap in Pilsen and around the country, says Raymundo. Although more Latinos are enrolling in college, they remain the least educated of the country’s major ethnic groups, according to a report by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Only 13 percent of the Latino population over age 25 has a bachelor’s degree, and only 36 percent of first-time, full-time Latino students earn a degree within six years. Through an $8.4 million state grant, private donations, and a $2.5 million mortgage, TRP decided to do something about the problem.

Just a few feet from an “L” train stop that offers quick access to campuses around the city, La Casa opened in August 2012. The six-story building can house 100 students in fully furnished “pods,” each with five bedrooms and a kitchen. As of late spring, 32 students who attend schools across the city lived there. Raymundo expects occupancy to grow steadily as more people learn about the opportunity through local high schools and universities. Dormitory housing in Chicago costs between $8,500 and $13,000 per year, while La Casa runs about $6,500. TRP offers scholarships and a sliding payment scale to help defray this cost.

Raymundo’s own family was far from affluent. His parents moved the family from Mexico to Pilsen when he was seven years old. After graduating from Carleton, Raymundo has dedicated his life to strengthening the community where he grew up and now lives with his wife and three children.

He credits political science professor Paul Wellstone with nurturing his activism. When Wellstone co-chaired Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign in Minnesota, he invited Raymundo to introduce the candidate at a rally near Northfield. Raymundo’s experiences at Carleton—including helping to lead the Latin American Student Organization, serving on a Carleton Student Association Budget committee, and interacting with other students from all over the country—helped give him the confidence to return to Pilsen and address its many challenges.

Started with $30,000 in seed money from six Catholic churches, TRP is now an anchor to both Pilsen and the adjacent (also predominantly Latino) neighborhoods of Little Village and Back of the Yards. With Raymundo at the helm as CEO and with support from both foundations and government grants, the organization has generated investments of more than $250 million for Chicago’s Southwest Side communities.     

In 1999 Local Initiatives Support Corporation, the country’s largest community development support organization, selected TRP to lead a comprehensive Pilsen development effort to coordinate the efforts of a dozen neighborhood organizations and agencies. Since then, TRP has developed affordable housing and rental properties, opened two daycare centers and a charter high school, and helped residents purchase houses through free home-buying workshops and its own Realtors service.

But the organization, which has won numerous awards for community development, is about more than bricks and mortar.    It has partnered with other local organizations to support single working mothers, deliver affordable medical care, and expand access to early childhood education. Staff members and volunteers also offer financial counseling and encourage civic engagement through voter registration drives and community leader training programs, for example.

“Our approach has always been comprehensive community development,” Raymundo says. “We look at the assets of a community—both tangible and nontangible—and ask: How can we build on them? We learn what the needs are and how we can address them from an empowering perspective.”

At La Casa, residents have access to the adjacent La Casa Resource Center, which houses a computer lab, student lounge, kitchen, and college information center. Tutors from nearby universities offer study sessions at the facility, which also hosts workshops to help families navigate college, including assistance with financial aid applications.

“We’re a one-stop shop for anything that has to do with college and career readiness,” says Maria Bucio ’99, director of La Casa student housing since 2012 and a Pilsen native. “We are creating a pipeline to encourage college success,” adds Bucio, who points to the positive influence the La Casa residents are having on the college aspirations of younger kids in the neighborhood.

Like any good community organizer, Raymundo continues to look forward. TRP’s partnership with Self Help Federal Credit Union has created the largest “community development credit union” in the state to provide financial services and to drive out payday lenders who take advantage of the working poor. It’s also helping families in suburbs like Melrose Park, where predatory lending practices led to many foreclosures.

At the same time, Raymundo is focused on achieving what he calls “transformational growth”—to diversify the organization’s funding base by increasing earned income and decreasing dependence on government grants and philanthropy. “We want to create social enterprises to generate opportunities and income for our sustainability,” he says, pointing to Casa Maravilla, a $20 million housing complex for seniors that TRP developed in 2010 and continues to manage.

Raymundo says he is blessed to work in a place where he puts his faith and values into practice. He is guided by a simple philosophy: “Excel at what you know how to do, but don’t try to be everything to everyone. You need to form strategic relationships and institutional partnerships to accomplish your goals.”

Jeremy Gantz is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

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