New Community Healing Initiative expansion connects adults to job readiness, life and parenting skills, and community

February 15, 2023
Jorge Arena's journey led him to Latino Network, where Arenas serves today as the Youth Empowerment and Violence Prevention Program Manager

Jorge Arenas was a small child when he first came to the United States from Mexico. He grew up in the Little Village neighborhood of Chicago — fondly known as La Villita — that, Arenas says, is home to one of the largest populations of Latinos in the state.  

“It’s part of Cicero where Obama had ties,” he shared proudly.

The neighborhood faced its share of challenges with poverty and crime, a reality that persists today. 

“But I love that place,” Arenas said. “Living in that city, it’s such a blessing because there’s so many opportunities for anyone. Anyone can come up and become someone. It connects to so many places and nations and successful immigrants.”

Arenas had little, if any, support from his immediate family once he arrived in Little Village. Without a network to support his learning, he only attended school sporadically.  

“In the immigrant community, we learn to be pretty resourceful and survive, and that’s what helped,” he said. 

At age 16, he moved to the North County area of San Diego, California, and temporarily lived with his mom. But generally, he said, “I was on my own and I ended up on my own.”

Despite the change in scenery, Arenas continued to be held back by poverty and a lack of positive role models. 

“The terrain was beautiful, but I never felt welcome,” he said. “There was violence and negative influences and I never felt safe, even though you’re living in a beach paradise.” 

At 17, Arenas moved to Portland and enrolled in David Douglas High School. 

“I almost got kicked out of school for not having the best behavior,” he admits. His following stint at Parkrose High School was cut short when it was discovered he didn’t live in the district.  

It wasn’t until he suffered a deep internal medical injury that things changed. Arenas, reeling from pain and alone, had to move in with his brother. He started to connect with positive adults and worked to “find better alternatives” as he made his way. 

“I moved in with my brother and applied to Leadership And Entrepreneurship Public (LEP) Charter High School in Northeast Portland. I’d gone to nine different high schools from Chicago to San Diego to Portland, but after that I never looked back,” Arenas said. 

Through LEP, Arenas found a succession of caring adults, including a teacher who continued to advocate for him, as well as a case manager at El Programa Hispano’s Libres Program, Mario Servellon, who connected him to professionals at leadership conferences. 

“When I started working with Mario, I had more doors open and met the first person who looked like me and who went to college and had a similar experience,” he said. “And that showed me that it is possible.” 

He particularly remembers meeting “a law student who was similar to me, who later became an attorney and today is a Marion County Judge.”  

“At that time, I needed something, I wanted something different,” Arenas said. “I never saw the possibility that things could be better for me, but thanks to the role models, I became a super senior. And if it wasn’t for that school, I would have never graduated from high school because, as a senior, I didn’t even know how to write an essay.”

Arenas was inspired to pursue higher education and eventually received a bachelor’s in Family and Human Services from the University of Oregon. 

His journey led him to Latino Network, where Arenas serves today as the Youth Empowerment and Violence Prevention Program Manager. Here, he oversees several programs, including a newer expansion of the Community Healing Initiative (CHI) geared toward adult men aged 18 to 30. The program helps connect adults involved in the justice system with job readiness and placement resources, life and parenting skills, and cognitive behavioral therapy. 

The long-running CHI program is a collaborative partnership between Multnomah County’s Department of Community Justice (DCJ), Latino Network, Portland Opportunities Industrialization Center (POIC) and others, designed to decrease youth involvement in the justice system by providing culturally appropriate community support to youth and families. 

After Multnomah County received its first allocation of federal American Rescue Plan funds in 2021, the Board of County Commissioners allocated a portion of those resources to expand the CHI model to adults through Latino Network. 

Both Arenas and the clients he works with through Latino Network have had their lives upended by violence, which gives him unparalleled insight into how best to reach them.

“When you work with youth who are at-risk — or as many in the industry prefer to say, youth ‘at-hope’ — there’s a window of opportunity that you really have to take advantage of when youth are really receptive to services,” he said. “When trust is filled, amazing things happen, especially when the youth is receptive.” 

Arenas believes the same truths apply to his adult clients.  

The pilot formally launched in August 2022 as the first culturally specific male Latino caseload for DCJ’s Adult Services Division. Multnomah County parole and probation officer Jerry Garza, oversees the County’s new caseload.

“From a young age, I spoke Spanish in my home, a multi-generational family. I’ve understood the challenges Latinos can face in our community. I became a parole and probation officer to help people; really to help anyone in need. If I can be a bridge between people on our caseloads and help support community safety and positive change and change someone's life in a positive way —  that is how I wish to serve.” 

Garza attends weekly staff meetings with Latino Network. Referrals to Latino Network come through his team.

“We started slow by taking referrals, and now we have 11 referrals and participants,” Arenas said.

In his role, Arenas regularly sees the people he works with — both his younger clients in the Community Healing Initiative and the participants in the newer CHI Adult program — encounter challenges similar to those he experienced. 

And while not every CHI Adult program participant has been incarcerated, all are men on parole and probation. Some may be struggling to find housing or employment. “They come to us and we’re trying to see what they are struggling with, and we have strategic partnerships.” 

CHI participants face numerous barriers to safety, stability and opportunity, including substantial trauma, a lack of resources and crushing poverty.  

“Some may live in areas that do not feel safe and they express their concerns because they’re concerned about their children or even themselves,” said Ximena Ospina-Todd, Youth Empowerment and Violence Prevention Division Director at Latino Network. 

Ospina-Todd shares that participants also experience low self-esteem because of all the challenges they’re already facing. And that impacts their ability to get employment, get a driver’s license or even complete community service hours. 

The adult CHI program, like its youth-focused counterpart, wraps resources around participants and their families based on what they have helped identify as their greatest needs. Often, what they need is connection to a career or coaching, or to treatment, counseling and group meetings. 

Based on the successes of the CHI model, “we know that we’re wrapping services that are meaningful and uplifting,” said Ospina-Todd. “The family decides what we’re going to do. We don’t supervise them. We’re building authentic relationships.”

Because many clients are fathers, Latino Network has integrated a new curriculum into the program that focuses on developing the role of fatherhood. Raising Children with PRIDE (Positive purpose, Responsibility, Interdependence, Development and Enthusiasm), created by the National Compadres Network, offers a comprehensive, multi-culturally based fatherhood program and parenting class that assists fathers to be positive influences in the lives of children and family while assisting them in dealing with the multitude of challenges they face. 

“We honed in on this one,” said Ospina-Todd. “This is a curriculum that’s designed specifically for Latino males with some sort of justice-involvement.”

The curriculum, she said, explores “what it is to be a male. What is your role in society, and in family, and what is the expectation of community? It highlights struggles and self-esteem. It ranges from rites of passages to how to change a diaper.

“And it’s beautifully centered on identity, culture and conflict resolution to build identity, belonging and culture.”

Mario Palma, Latino Network CHI Adult program mentor; Scott Bradley, HOPE Center pastor; Josh Gonzalez, Latino Network care manager

Saturday mornings are a sacred time for clients and staff at Latino Network. You might find both at a popular gathering spot in Gresham for CrossFit classes, or practicing peer support and healing circles, or having healthy discussions about raising children and other pressing topics.

A lot of times, they get breakfast or lunch.   

“They’re short on time during the week because they work,” said Ospina-Todd.

“We know through research the more positive adults that children can have around them, the more likely they’ll be able to succeed and avoid issues like getting involved in the juvenile justice system,” said Arenas. 

The same may be true for adults. “By being connected to positive adults and teaching them about resources that they can use indefinitely, they can change their lives in a positive way,” he continued. “It’s like having a map to help us navigate things better and find the destinations that we want to reach easier.” 

Because the CHI Adult program launched just months ago, staff are still looking for trends. But for many participants, the program is about feeling worthy, finding belonging and identifying needs, said Ospina-Todd.

“If someone needs substance use disorder treatment, we connect with them to make sure we can take our participants and offer them a community of peers to support,” she said. “There are housing themes, immigration themes. We have navigators for those who need someone to guide them — not provide legal advice, but navigation.”

One of the biggest challenges for this community is shame and isolation. But program founders hope that by helping participants develop peer networks, those much-needed connections will endure long past their engagement with services. 

“We are service providers. We’re here for a little bit of time — that could be three or five years,” said Ospina-Todd. “But when we fade away, we want to keep that community there. There’s a lot of intentionality in that. We want to build a community of peers.”

Arenas often reflects on his own winding journey when sharing his story of hope with others, acknowledging that without people like Mario and a host of other positive role models “I could have been in prison or dead… I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

“I came back to Portland in 2016, and in 2018, I started the second phase of my journey, working for Latino Network and giving back to my community,” he said. 

And while Arenas has come a long way, his journey is far from over. He intends to go back to school and pursue a law degree at the University of Chicago Law School.

“Our Latino community is centered around beautiful gifts, family, celebration, food, music, laughter and love,” said Ospina-Todd.

“Nobody can take away our joy and our pride in being joyful.”