By James Natsis
One would be remiss to reflect on the burgeoning immigrant and refugee populations in Louisville without recognizing the central role the Americana Community Center has played since its inception in 1990. From its humble beginnings as the activity center located in a two-apartment space at the former Americana Apartments, it has evolved into a multi-faceted community and educational center that serves refugee, immigrant and underserved populations in the Southside and Beechmont neighborhoods and beyond.
The one constant in Americana’s history is executive director and Argentinian native Edgardo Mansilla, who agreed to welcome Insider Louisville to a recent visit of the center. The former University of Louisville social work graduate first directed the center from 1993-96, and then returned in 1998, where he has remained to the present. Among Mansilla’s early moves was to change the name to its current moniker and to expand the center by adding a full apartment building and knocking out some of the walls to create more open space.
By 2002, “people were coming like crazy,” Mansilla says. The Vietnamese population was growing quickly and the center had reached its capacity. In May of that year, Mansilla learned that Spalding University was selling its Holy Rosary Academy located on 200 Southland Blvd., a close and safe walk from Americana Apartments and a few other apartment complexes since there were no major street crossings.
What came next is best described by Mansilla as “a miracle.” Mansilla knew this was a perfect opportunity, but his one-person office had little hope of raising the $1 million it required to obtain the property and prepare it for operation. Nonetheless, he started by convincing the Annie E. Casey Foundation to let him use $5,000 he had in his grant with them to apply toward a down payment. The foundation agreed and offered him access to a grant writer to implement a yet-to-be developed business plan.
Mansilla walked a tight timeline as he searched for possible donors. He spotted what seemed to be a Hispanic name, “Angelo,” of a family-funded foundation director and contacted him hoping to reach a sympathetic compadre. Although the gentleman was not Hispanic, he was intrigued by the proposition and gathered a group of philanthropists who raised nearly the full $1 million that allowed Mansilla to procure the building and provide it with the necessary renovations and staff needed to begin operations.
“It was a miracle — how else can I describe it?” he reiterates while recounting the story. “On Sept. 17, I wrote the biggest check in my life!”
The new site was completed in May 2003, and a more recent renovation took place over a two-year period from 2011-13. The latest makeover cost $2.5 million and included expanded and centralized office space, a renewed front lobby, a new entrance from the back parking area, an elevator, new windows, improved heating and air, and reconfigured classroom space.
Programs director Kristin Burgoyne coordinates all services at Americana. The West Virginia native completed her master’s degree in social work at U of L before joining Americana in 2009. Since her arrival, she has participated in a substantial period of growth. In addition to the building renovations, the center has added two full-time family coaches and a full-time director of development. She attributes this growth to Mansilla’s vision of revamping and improving their programs built around the needs of the community. This included the use of more professionals in various service areas instead of primarily calling upon the contribution of students and other community members.
Although better known for its role serving immigrant and refugee communities, Americana offers assistance to underserved populations, as well. Participants may take prep classes for the GED, and receive free assistance during tax season. In addition, the Family Health Center opened a clinic on the grounds in 2007 that serves more than 8,000 participants per year.
According to Burgoyne, the needs of immigrant and refugee populations varies over time.
“The Vietnamese, for example, was one of the first groups to arrive here,” she says. “They are well established now and don’t need our resources, such as the more newly arrived Burundi population.”
This observation was noted by Americana’s finance manager, Abram Deng, who arrived in Louisville with his family as a Sudanese refugee in 1999 when he was 9 years old. The 2014 Spalding University business and accounting graduate recalls his experience adapting to his newly adopted country and the role Americana played for him and the Sudanese community at the time.
“I remember anytime our relatives would have some type of event, this is where we would go,” he says. The Sudanese used to “stick together” more in those days, Deng recounts. Now he sees the youth as being more “culturally competent” and much better integrated with other ethnic and cultural groups.
Although the center provides a wide variety of services to the community, the main two are the after-school and family programs. During the day, family coaches work with parents and pre-school children to prepare the youth for school and to assist the parents in attaining their personal goals, such as purchasing a house or a car, learning English, preparing for college, etc. Parents and children also spend time interacting to better develop their relationship as family.
The after-school program enrolls about 200 school-age children. These youth are provided dinner and guidance with their homework. They also participate in a variety of activities like sports, visual and performing arts, computer services, etc. Parents sign an agreement to attend at least six meetings per year, or their kids will lose their seats.
“We have 70 kids on the waiting list, so parents have to be responsible,” says Mansilla. He is especially pleased that in the last three years, 100 percent of participants leaving high school have gone on to college. “Their attendance is 97.3 percent, which is above the average,” he proudly adds.
Mansilla will continue his tireless efforts of serving the community in compliance with the four major principles he established as guidance — human dignity, social justice, being holistic in your approach and cognizance of “person in environment.” He is contemplating a possible name change for the center to better reflect its ever-changing role. He feels reassured about the future of Americana and its place in the Greater Louisville community.
About the author: James Natsis, Ph.D, is a professor in the History Department at West Virginia State University in Charleston, W.V. He also lives in Louisville. Natsis is a world traveler and former Peace Corps volunteer.