- Associated Press - Thursday, May 15, 2014

HOUSTON (AP) - Edgar Herrera chooses his words carefully. English remains a work in progress for him after 18 months of classes at Neighborhood Centers Inc.’s colorful Baker-Ripley campus, the keystone of a revival of the Gulfton area in southwest Houston.

Herrera puffs out his chest and stops swaying his small body.

“I’m a cook in a restaurant,” he says, smiling.

The continuous flow of old and new faces - immigrants like Herrera as well as sixth-generation Texans - has helped to make Neighborhood Centers, founded in 1907, one of the biggest helping hands in East Texas.

The organization is a nonprofit behemoth, with 74 service sites in 60 Texas counties. Its $263 million in services, ranging from charter schools to senior centers, give it unrivaled stature in every community it touches. The organization assisted more than 400,000 people in 2012, according to internal estimates.

Since so many of its clients are newcomers, Neighborhood Centers has become a sort of Ellis Island of Houston. It enjoys a front-row seat to the region’s unrivaled diversity, which demographers believe represents the future of the country.

Neighborhood Centers‘ size, array of services and unique approach to community development have caught the attention of national urban strategists, who are encouraging other institutions to emulate its model.

“I think what places need is a vision,” said Bruce Katz, vice president of the Brookings Institution and director of its Metropolitan Policy Program. “There is no lacking capital in the United States. None … What’s needed, and what (Neighborhood Centers) is doing, is putting vision to capital.”

From language classes to basic computer skills and financial advice, all of the programs meet needs expressed by people in the community, mixed with what Neighborhood Centers knows will be in demand. When tax season was in full swing, for example, financial programs were going strong.

Neighborhood Centers‘ recipe for success is so simple that volunteers and staff sometimes struggle to explain it. CEO Angela Blanchard talks about solving problems that clients identify, like needing to speak English.

“We have to understand English and how to write,” said Dipika Sodagar, 44, an immigrant from India who has advanced to an online course taught at Baker-Ripley. “We are here. We need this.”

That bottom-up approach informs every decision the organization makes, from what classes are offered during the day - when stay-at-home moms can attend - to what colors the walls should be painted.

Neighborhood Centers has earned deep trust within the communities it serves. In immigrant social circles that operate as welcoming committees for newcomers, word spreads quickly to check out its services.

Edgar Herrera was 19 or 20 and had been in the country less than three years when he walked onto the Baker-Ripley campus. He had never attended school in his native Guatemala, but he found his way into a free, basic class at Baker-Ripley. Now he’s writing English and wants to earn a GED and even go to college someday.

“It is a big dream,” he says.

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