GCI President and CEO Cris Medina credits the community and funders for his success.



BY JOE ARCE AND COREY CRABLE


The Guadalupe Centers (GCI) turns 100 years old this year, and its leaders are preparing a big bash to celebrate the occasion.


Celebrating during Hispanic Heritage Month, the centers’ Blanco y Negro Awards Gala and Centennial Celebration will take place at 5 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 21, at the Kansas City Convention Center in the Grand Ballroom. The black-tie event will feature cocktails, dinner, a silent auction and live entertainment.


There’s plenty of reason to celebrate for this organization that has been helping immigrants acclimate to a new culture, find jobs and take advantage of resources such as its own school system – both those from Mexico and those Mexican-Americans who come to live in Kansas City from other areas in the U.S.


“This has been a tremendous year for us,” says Cris Medina, the centers’ longtime executive director, who has worked at the center for more than 40 years. “We help immigrants and others, and that is a message we want people to know. We’re very proud of that. It’s the heart of the organization.”


The Mexican population in the U.S. swelled in the years immediately prior to and during World War I, when the railroad industry desperately needed workers after losing much of its workforce to the wartime effort. With immigration laws strict for European immigrants and relatively loose for those south of the border, Mexicans arrived in states across the country to work cheaply, to work hard, and to do the jobs that many didn’t wish to do.


In 1919, the year after the war ended, the Guadalupe Centers was founded to help these new immigrants navigate life in a new land.


The organization was there for the people it served when the stock market crashed in 1929 and the Great Depression began, along with anti-immigrant discrimination and hatred. It was there during the Second World War and immediately after, when Latinos made their way to the Westside to begin building houses and families. And it was there in 1978, when Medina walked through the front doors and was hired by then-executive director Tony Salazar as a youth director.


“The center for me meant a lot in my development as an individual,” Medina recalls. “For that, I’m very thankful.”


It didn’t take long for Salazar to notice that Medina stood out as a strong leader. The year after he was hired, Medina took Salazar’s place as executive director, leading the centers into brave new territory as it experienced a renaissance, a growth in services and the number of people who needed them.


“(In the beginning), we had a staff of 20 full time and 10 part time employees,” Medina explains. “Today, we have three nonprofits, 330 employees, and our combined budget is over $33 million. We serve over 16,000 people in a year.”


That includes the opening of the centers’ own schools in order to battle decreasing graduation numbers among Latino youths in the area. Other accomplishments during Medina’s tenure include the recent unveiling of the legacy mural wall, which honors the centers’ founding members and other important figures throughout the organization’s history, and the launching of a scholarship fund in order to help Latino students attend college and plant their roots as future leaders in Kanas City’s burgeoning Latino community.


“Now, we have companies with Latinos in leadership positions. I’m amazed with the younger people working in the private and public sectors. We still need to do that even more often,” Medina says. “And the scholarship fund has helped to develop leadership and promote young people to their different careers.”


Salazar himself, impressed but not surprised by the leadership that Medina has brought to the organization, isn’t just sitting on the sidelines throughout the centers’ anniversary. He currently serves as the chairman of capital campaigns for the centers’ 100-year anniversary. Salazar says his own grandparents would have been among those who would have needed and taken advantage of the centers’ programs in 1919.


“The organization was established to meet the need of people who had just arrived (in Kansas City), to help them get assimilated and find jobs,” says Salazar. “My grandparents were aware of the organization, but it was set up to help people like them. It identified a need, it formed services to meet those needs, and people continue to need those services today.”


Medina, currently Guadalupe Centers’ longest-serving executive director, says he still has some things to do before he even thinks about retiring. After all, he says, there’s still work to do, and there always will be.


“I see myself phasing out in the next couple of years,” he says. “But before I go, I want to put the leadership in place. I would be neglectful in my job if I didn’t train and pass on my skills to (younger leaders). So, that’s huge.”


He adds that he’s proud to be able to help make so much positive change in the Latino community here.


“I love my job. It changes – we have new developments, and the growth of the agency is something I’m very proud of,” Medina says. “There’s a need here. We’re serving a purpose.”


Medina says he hopes everyone who has been a part of the centers’ success – from employees to residents who have used its services – will be able to attend the Sept. 21 gala.


“We want everybody who’s participated in the center to feel this is a homecoming for them, that it’s a part of who they are, whether they came as a child or a senior,” he says. “We want them to feel that this is their event, that this is their center, and we want them to be proud of that association.”


Salazar says that if the centers’ leaders can continue the momentum that has already been moving the organization forward, the future will be a bright one indeed.


“They (Medina and the board of directors) have stayed true to the mission of the organization. They have created programming to meet needs,” Salazar says. “That has set the tone for the next 100 years. They should be proud of what they have accomplished.”


For more information on the Guadalupe Centers or to buy tickets to the Sept. 21 Blanco y Negro Gala, visit www.guadalupecenters.org.