San Fernando Mayor Celeste Rodriguez (second from the left) and Assemblymember Luz Rivas (middle) with El Centro de Amistad staff as the San Fernando facility received $1 million to expand and hire more clinicians. (G. Arizon/SFVS)

The multilingual organization El Centro de Amistad received $1 million in funding Friday, Aug. 25, to expand the facility in the City of San Fernando and hire more clinicians who can provide the range of mental health, educational and recreational services the center offers.

Staff and board members of the organization, as well as San Fernando Mayor Celeste Rodriguez, gathered outside of the facility as Assemblymember Luz Rivas presented the large ceremonial check.

The funding was initiated by the organization’s executive director, Luis Cervantes, who pushed for it. After hearing that Rivas had announced state funding to several different organizations, Cervantes came to her and explained why this funding was so necessary to El Centro de Amistad and the community.

“These funds are critical to our work,” Cervantes said. “These funds are going to allow us to continue to steward this organization forward. These funds are going to allow us to bring in additional mental health clinicians to work in our community. Our clinicians go into schools, into homes, anywhere they can have an opportunity to have a private, confidential meeting with their clients — our community.”

Cervantes explained that with more clinicians comes the need for more space at the San Fernando facility — which currently consists of three small buildings. He said that the funds will allow this facility to get more retail space so it can expand. Cervantes estimated that it would take at least a year before the new space opens to the public.

Rivas pointed out that this funding is a big reason why people, especially Latinos, need to be advocates for others in their community.

“I was knocking on doors, calling the governor’s office, the assembly speaker’s office, [telling them] I need this $1 million. This is a priority,” Rivas said. “And that’s what’s great about it, because if we’re all like that, we’re going to get what our communities need.”

El Centro de Amistad, which has operated in the valley for more than 46 years, offers free services in both English and Spanish to adults and youth; the organization accepts Medi-Cal, Children’s Health Insurance (MCHIP) recipients and uninsured consumers based on staffing capacity.

These services include adult outpatient services, CalWORKS, children’s outpatient and school-linked programs, a legal clinic, family preservation program, infant massage services, prevention and early intervention programs and relative home assessment services.

“Our services are embedded in culture and bilingualism versus an add-on type of service,” Cervantes said. “We’re also an organization that’s been growing. We’ve got great partnerships, we get amazing clinicians that have the ability to communicate with mom or dad, who may be monolingual Spanish, but their child may be better at speaking in English. We’re able to actually perform services and do it well in those environments.”

Cervantes said these types of services are vital to the community, pointing out the stigma around mental health within Latino communities.

“We’ve dealt with that throughout our 46 years pretty successfully, but now that the country as a whole and the community has opened themselves up to this type of support, that it is okay [to talk about how] it does affect you just like if you had a medical condition,” Cervantes said. “Your mental health has an impact on your livelihood and your ability to function.”

El Centro de Amistad Sargent at Arms Justin Grooms said that most of the issues we deal with as a society have an undercurrent of mental health issues, which can’t be legislated away. He said that giving people housing and jobs is akin to treating the symptoms, but not the root problem — mental health.

“If we can tackle one household at a time, we can change the community over time,” Grooms said. “The funds, obviously, are going to help a great deal, not only to add resources and space, but additional training, continuing education for our staff and things of that nature.”

Grooms also mentioned that the organization will be looking into expanding into other communities but did not specify which ones.

Board President Danitza Pantoja recalled a bit of the organization’s history — which was started in Canoga Park by community members struggling with crime, poverty, unemployment and drug abuse — and said the state funding will allow the San Fernando facility to “amplify” its capacity to serve the community.

“El Centro’s story began in 1977 when a dedicated group of residents from Canoga Park came together, united by a shared vision to establish a sanctuary of solace and support a safe haven for their community,” Pantoja said. “This grassroots endeavor marked the inception of El Centro de Amistad, setting it on a trajectory that would ultimately lead to becoming a comprehensive mental health agency touching the lives of 1000s.

“El Centro de Amistad remains resolute to deliver comprehensive mental health services that anticipate the ever-evolving needs of families and individuals in the San Fernando Valley,” Pantoja continued. “We stand firm in our commitment to nurture and safeguard the mental health and overall well-being of children, adults and families.”

Rodriguez praised El Centro for its work, calling it a “wonderful resource” for the services it provides, including providing students with school supplies and baskets for families during the holidays.

“We have generations here in San Fernando and the fact is El Centro has been here, growing with our community,” Rodriguez said. “And it’s resources like this that the assemblymember [Rivas] has secured … that’s going to help it to continue to grow in our community for generations and decades to come.”

Rivas gave closing remarks, saying securing the funding was a collective effort, and praised El Centro’s staff for their services and their help in securing the funding.

“I want to thank all the staff and administrators of El Centro for working with my team. That was a major part of this effort to support this investment and for being a strong pillar in this community,” Rivas said. “I know this funding will have a positive impact in our community.”