The Distinguished Hispanic Ohioan awardees included Mary Lou
Reyes, executive director of
Organización Cívica y Cultural Hispana
Americana, Inc. (OCCHA)
in Youngstown and Victor Ruiz, executive director of
Esperanza, Inc. in Cleveland.
OCCHA is a non-profit organization founded in 1972 to identify
problem areas in the Spanish-speaking communities in Mahoning,
Trumbull, and Columbiana counties and establish programs to
address them. The non-profit’s mission is to strive to improve
the quality of life for Hispanics and others in the
multicultural community by providing social, economic, cultural,
and educational programs.
Ms. Reyes took the helm at OCCHA in 2014, following her
retirement as a Girl Scout executive.
She had previously won the Outstanding Hispanic Volunteer Award
from OCCHA for her many years of mentoring and service. Ms.
Reyes was also inducted in 2017 into the
League of Women
Voters of Greater Youngstown Hall of Fame, among several other
OCCHA provides social services, food and clothing distribution,
technical services, computer technology lab, Head Start, Zumba
classes, among other programs and services. At least nine of its
12 board members are of Latino origin.
OCCHA’s work has become even more important in recent years,
especially following last year’s immigration raid at a
Salem-area meat processing plant. The Latino population in the
Mahoning Valley continues to grow steadily at a time when the
U.S. population growth has slowed considerably. 90 percent of
the families served by OCCHA only speak Spanish.
“We’re getting a lot more multicultural Hispanics. At one time
it was predominantly Mexicans and Puerto Ricans, but now we’re
having a lot of other immigrants coming in,” Ms. Reyes recently
told local publication The Jambar.
OCCHA hosts a number of signature fundraisers throughout the
year, including its annual Latin Food Fest, which funds
its youth programs. The organization just observed its 47th
annual gala fundraiser over the weekend at Stambaugh Auditorium.
OCCHA also stepped up to partner with Hometown Pharmacy
to organize a care package for Hurricane María victims in
Victor Ruiz, a native of Puerto Rico,
has served as Esperanza’s executive director for
just shy of a decade, a faith-based nonprofit
organization that strengthens Hispanic communities
through education, economic development, and advocacy.
While Esperanza began in the 1980s to promote better
educational opportunities for Latinos through
scholarships, the organization has challenged the high
school dropout rate and worked to improve academic
achievement in the schools of the Cleveland
Metropolitan School District.
During the last several years, Esperanza has grown its budget to
more than $2 million, primarily because the organization added
evidence-based mentoring, leadership, and academic assistance
programs while under the guidance of Ruiz. Latino leaders credit
him for moving the needle in a positive direction when it comes
to high school graduation rates and the number of Latino
students entering higher education or workforce education
Back in August, Esperanza was awarded a $52,000 grant from the
Larry Doby Fund to expand its successful teen mentoring
program. The foundation is named after the second
African-American to play professional baseball. Doby joined the
Cleveland Indians just months after Jackie Robinson
broke the color barrier in the major leagues.
In the last three years, the graduation rate in Cleveland for
Hispanics has gone up over 20 percent and over 90 percent of
students who participate in Esperanza’s tutoring and mentoring
program achieve high school graduation. The nonprofit starts
with students in the sixth grade.
Ruiz has expanded his influence as a Latino leader in Greater
Cleveland well beyond Esperanza. He joined the board of trustees
at Cuyahoga Community College in 2012 and, earlier this
year, earned a fellowship at the National Institute for
Latino School Leaders (NILSL), which is run by Unidos US
(formerly National Council of La Raza). He previously
served as the board president of the Hispanic Alliance,
an umbrella advocacy group representing multiple Latino-serving
organizations and programs.
In the past several years, Ruiz and Esperanza have co-led relief
efforts for Puerto Rican families who fled the aftermath of
Hurricane María and resettled in the Cleveland area. Many of
those individuals and families only spoke Spanish and needed
help to find housing, jobs, household items, educational
opportunities, and medical facilities.
Ruiz lost his own father in 2017 to the hurricane. He died just
days after Hurricane María wrecked the U.S. territory and
knocked out electricity to the entire island. Their family home
on the island was completely destroyed and his father was unable
to get the medication he needed.
estimates pegged the Puerto Rican population in Greater
Cleveland at about 107,000 at the time of the hurricane. That
population has swelled to nearly 200,000 just in the past couple
of years, as thousands of families decided to stay after
relocating near other family or in enclaves.