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Nonprofit serving Hispanic community expands as population grows

TARPON SPRINGS — Even as the founder of a Pinellas County nonprofit serving the Hispanic community leaves her post, the Hispanic Outreach Center continues to expand its presence in response to a growing need.

Sandra Lyth founded the center in 2000, which expanded last year and opened a Tarpon Springs office after receiving a renewable grant from the Juvenile Welfare Board of about $245,000. Lyth, whose last official day was Sept. 30, said the center used the grant to rent a space from St. Petersburg College's Tarpon Springs campus, as well as hire two full-time workers and two part-time assistants.

The center had other partner organizations in the city to offer a strong proposal on how it could serve the growing Hispanic and Latino community, she said.

"We were able to bring a lot of added value to the table," she said.

The center gets its funding through donors and fundraising efforts, as well as through the Juvenile Welfare Board, the city of Clearwater and the Pinellas Community Foundation.

Lyth said she will continue the job until the center's board finds a replacement. After emigrating from Canada, she founded the center in 2000 after realizing there was a lack of services that catered to the Spanish-speaking community in Pinellas. Arriving in Pinellas after leaving her career as a correctional officer in Quebec, she found a bi-cultural, bilingual culture she was familiar with was present but not nurtured.

"What I saw was a whole culture of people here with language barriers" being ignored, she said. "They didn't even see them."

It began as a partnership with the Clearwater Police Department, which was in need of an interpreter to communicate with Spanish-speaking residents. From there, Lyth said the center formed and partnered with people in different organizations to offer services. It's easier to refer someone to a person, Lyth said, than an agency.

It has evolved into a one-stop center that offers anything from immigration lawyers to counseling services. A 2014 survey conducted by the center identified Pinellas Park, St. Petersburg and Tarpon Springs as areas where family services were needed.

Diana Perez, coordinator for Hispanic services, said that while Clearwater has a large Mexican population, Tarpon Springs sees everyone from Venezuela, Ecuador and Guatemala, and many from Puerto Rico.

"Because this is a brand new program, we've kind of had to start from the bottom up and scope out what the community is like here in Tarpon," said Perez, adding that after a year in the city, they've figured out the community needs to be served differently than the one in Clearwater.

In its first year, the Tarpon Springs location served 60 families, she said. They're already seeing an increase from that number from families who need assistance after Hurricane Irma.

Families from Pasco County often make the trip over because there's a lack of resources in the county, but they are limited in ways to help.

"We can refer them but we can't serve them because they're out of our county," she said.

Along with Perez, the center has staff that offer legal and counseling services and other services, like helping them get bus passes.

The office is near the bus stop, which Perez says is convenient for clients who depend on the bus as their mode of transportation. But it isn't like the Clearwater office, which has a bus terminal behind it, so they sometimes pick up clients or bring the services to them.

Lyth said the center looks at the number of Hispanic students enrolled at Pinellas County public schools in order to get an idea of how the demographics are changing. Over the past five years, she said, the Hispanic population has doubled, up 16.4 percent in the last school year from 6.5 percent in 2012.

Next, the center will focus on those arriving to the county from Puerto Rico to help them get some sort of normalcy back, whether that is getting them new clothes or opening a new bank account.

"Our best role is to help people who arrive here needing assistance," she said. "I think our expertise is really about settlement."

Contact Melissa Gomez at Follow @melissagomez004.