A Central Goal

As the new head of Centro Hispano, Karen Menendez Coller seeks to bring together Madison’s Latino community

PHOTO BY JANICA YODER

Karen Mendez Coller bcame the executive director of Centro Hispano in August.

The greater Madison community scored big when Karen Menendez Coller signed on as the new executive director of Centro Hispano in August. And Menendez Coller is thrilled to be part of the organization.

“I believe that Centro has unbelievable potential. We’ve been here for thirty years. People know who we are. I think we can be the great facilitator,” she says. “We all have our own visions, but I think we need to come together as partners and create a collaborative mission for what we see for the future of Latinos in Madison. Centro can be a great hub. We can be the connector, trying to be sure that families know all of the services and opportunities available to them in Madison.”

Centro Hispano works to improve the quality of life for Latinos and others living in Dane County by empowering youth, strengthening families and engaging the community.

Menendez Coller holds PhD and master’s degrees in public health and has been working in the public health field for close to fifteen years, including in academic, local and state government settings. Her passion has long centered on how public health programs can successfully improve social determinants of health, especially for Latino families in the United States.

“There’s a need to streamline efforts more in Madison, especially so our Latino community can come together more,” Menendez Coller says. “We can be more collaborative and do things more efficiently.”

Born in San Salvador, El Salvador, Menendez Coller traveled back and forth to the United States with her family before settling permanently in Los Angeles when she was fourteen years old.

“I have a soft spot for immigrant moms because I saw how much work my mom did to allow my brother and sister and me to be successful,” she says. “It really touches me quite a bit when I see families here at Centro because I have a deep connection with what they are facing. I saw it firsthand.”

Her work in California has offered other insights into Madison as well.

“In Los Angeles, I worked with and saw a lot of kids who were a product of neighborhoods that were very impoverished, and there was a serious lack of opportunity. There’s a lot of disillusionment and a lack of hope and a lack of trying,” Menendez Coller says. “Here in Madison, I sense there are a lot of challenges, but there is still that bubble of hope. The people are still digging for opportunities and trying to find a way. So I think we have a real chance of providing opportunities for those people who are here because they still have that thirst.”

Most recently, while a faculty member at UCLA, Menendez Coller directed collaborative projects with high-achieving high schools in Los Angeles to understand the impact of family and the educational environment on risk-taking behaviors and aspirations for Latino youth.

“Madison is at a point where L.A. was maybe twenty years back. A lot of experiences I understood through the project and the study I worked on give me a sense of issues kids in Madison could have later on if we don’t act now to try and improve their education and also understand why they engage in the type of behaviors that they do in the school and in the home,” she says. “That’s why I’m so excited about the programs we have here at Centro Hispano, because I really feel like they target what we wish we had done in L.A. ten years ago. Not only in the school system, but parent engagement, strengthening the family and strengthening the community. It’s more of a holistic approach, and that’s what I’ve always wanted to do.”

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