When Victor Ramirez walked through the doors of a new and controversial center for day laborers in early September 2006, he thought to himself "this train won't run."
Those were turbulent times for El Sol, a non-profit center at 106 Military Trail that helps match immigrant laborers with prospective employers -- without asking about the worker's legal status.
Back then, some residents were concerned the new center would encourage more illegal immigration and create a nuisance for the community. A group of neighbors had asked Jupiter Mayor Karen Golonka to halt the government-sponsored project and, when that didn't work, they picketed the new facility.
But, with the support of town officials, local charities and the mayor, El Sol ("The Sun" in Spanish) celebrated a milestone this past weekend -- its seventh anniversary.
"Now I say, 'This train won't stop,'" said Ramirez, a native of Chiapas, Mexico, who met his current boss, an electrician, at El Sol, and recently visited the center while his employer was on vacation.
The milestone is quite a feat -- an entity supported by private donations, volunteers and grants. The town of Jupiter, for example, leases the two-story building that houses the center to the non-profit Friends of El Sol for $1 a year. Originally, the town purchased the building, a former church, for $1.9 million, to help launch the center.
In the past seven years, El Sol has expanded its role from helping workers find jobs to also running a food pantry, assisting with legal and medical aid and sponsoring annual arts fair.
"This is our solution to a problem," said Mayor Golonka. "We are not here to enforce federal immigration laws. Our role is to make our community better."
Last year, El Sol matched 10,616 workers with employers -- pumping about $1.2 million into the local economy, according to El Sol director Jocelyn Skolnik.
And while other Palm Beach centers like El Sol have closed amid financial problems -- among them Lake Worth Resource Center and Buena Fe in Loxahatchee Groves -- the Jupiter center has survived. Last year, El Sol received a record $1.3 million in donations, according to the non-profit's annual report. Its operating budget is slightly more than $1 million.
Golonka attributes El Sol's success to the hard work of supporters, like Sister Marta Lucia Tobon, a Colombian nun who sits on the board of directors and helped oversee the project.
"She was able to get it going and convince folks not to be on the street," Golonka said. "She was very influential since it was a matter of building trust, and Sister Marta had the trust of the immigrant community."
El Sol was conceived after residents complained that day laborers, mostly from Guatemala and Mexico, were hanging around Center Street, a main thoroughfare, while they waited for someone to hire them for odd jobs, like painting or gardening.
Neighbors worried about traffic safety issues caused by the workers, and other problems, such as public urination and littering. Workers feared getting ripped off by employers.
Finally, a group of residents, town officials and local organizations decided to open a place where day laborers could find work without breaking the town's no-soliciting ordinance and where employers had to register and guarantee to pay a fair price for the work performed.
"El Sol is a safe place where these people can come find work," Skolnik said. "But we also make their waiting time productive."
While they wait for their next job, workers can take classes to become more proficient in English or learn a new skill, like computer literacy or sewing. The center also provides breakfast and lunch, thanks to volunteers and donations from chains such as Publix, Costco and Panera Bread.
And El Sol is not just for day laborers: Angela Hernandez, a Colombian mother of two and avid reader of Spanish literature says she learned how to use Power Point there.
She's become a regular who visits the center to polish her English and hopes to someday become a librarian.
"The folks who come here are very interested in becoming a part of the community," Skolnik said. "The few people who protested outside used to say absurd things like, 'These people don't even speak English.' My response was, 'Please, come in and watch these workers taking English classes.'"
firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @mj_felix
El Sol Neighborhood Resource Center
Where: 106 Military Trail, Jupiter
Contact: 561-745-9860, friendsofelsol.org
Event: El Sol's 6th Annual ArtFest 2013, Nov. 3, at the center
(c)2013 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)
Visit the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) at www.sun-sentinel.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services
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