She finds her home at multicultural family center

Alayne Unterberger, president and founder of the Florida Institute for Community Studies, calls on Bryan Garmas, 7, to answer a question about the history of Ybor City last month.
Alayne Unterberger, president and founder of the Florida Institute for Community Studies, calls on Bryan Garmas, 7, to answer a question about the history of Ybor City last month.
Published Aug. 4, 2016

TOWN 'N COUNTRY — She's a doctor of anthropology, firmly raised in the academic worlds of researching, studying, theorizing and publishing.

She speaks two languages, but is most fluent in a dialect where dozens of creative ideas constantly bounce around her head. If she's not arriving at an appointment, she's headed to one.

To summarize: She's busy.

So why is Alayne Unterberger stationed in this hopelessly cluttered strip-mall office, organizing field trips, cultivating volunteers, encouraging staff members, updating a Facebook page, listening to a parent's troubles or imploring a group of children to show up on time and eat healthy?

Where's the cushy, tenured position? Isn't she out of place?


She's at home.

Unterberger is founder and president of the Florida Institute for Community Studies, a multicultural family center with locations in Town 'N Country and Ruskin. To better understand the mission of FICS (referred to as "fix''), you first need to hear Unterberger's perceived purpose.

"I'd like to leave the world a better place than I found it,'' Unterberger said. "I hate injustice and the inequality it produces. It makes me mad and it actually gives me energy. That's my fuel.''

FICS, a state agency, finds solutions.

Working primarily with immigrant families from places such as Cuba, Haiti, Colombia, Venezuela and assorted Caribbean islands who have settled in Town 'N Country — along with the migrant population of south Hillsborough County — Unterberger and her staff seek to transform social and economic struggles into victories.

It might be English-language classes for a parent and the children.

It might be a soccer league.

It might be after-school or summer programs.

It might be a parent's gumption to request a meeting with a child's teacher, getting to the bottom of a learning issue instead of ignoring it.

It might be a fall festival, a flea market or an art show.

It might be the chance to learn some job skills.

Or it might be a forum to discuss typical problems, helping to transform a series of scattered neighborhood blocks into a true community.

"I thank God I found this place,'' said Tatiana Mesa, who placed her child in the organization's programs and now works as FICS youth advocate.

Mesa once taught fine arts in college. But after escaping Cuba, she worked as a Walmart cashier. She wanted more opportunities for her son, Emile Hernandez, but FICS has helped her discover a new life for herself. She is learning English and returning to teaching, acquiring skills in classroom management.

"I think this place (FICS) gets families to a different level,'' Mesa said. "I see the new kids come here, maybe shy and confused, trying to find their way. I know exactly how they feel. I was there. I'm still there. Sometimes, you just need a chance to learn.''

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FICS office manager Mercedes Fernandez once needed that chance. She arrived about 12 years ago from Venezuela with a 6-year-old daughter. Neither of them knew English.

"It can be a difficult life for people in this neighborhood,'' Fernandez said. "They feel like nobody cares and they are forgotten. The kids get into the schools, can't speak the English and they fall behind. The parents can't speak English either.

"You have to teach the people the importance of learning English. The word spreads and everything gets a little better. You have to try hard,'' she said.

Fernandez said she always taught her daughter, Naomi Mora, to strive and give back to the community. Next month, Mora heads to Northeastern University in Boston, where she will attend as a Tampa Bay Times Barnes Scholar.

"There's always hope of a better life and you have to show that to the people,'' Fernandez said.

According to Fernandez, the distribution of hope is what Unterberger does best.

"She is a very, very strong woman,'' Fernandez said. "She doesn't look like us. I think that means something to our community. We think, 'She's different. She must really care about us. She wants to be here.' "

Unterberger was there in FICS's infancy, when the non-profit agency was formally launched in 2002. And she has never really been gone. Although there was a stint at Florida International University, she came back often and even trained her successors.

She learned her best fit was with FICS.

Although Unterberger said she would welcome a Hispanic community member becoming FICS' next leader, leaving her with a more natural role of research director, she has willingly filled the top job because of its importance.

Unterberger may seem like a surprising fit to some because she's white and Jewish, but she also speaks Spanish and has taken the organization's multicultural emphasis to another level, perhaps giving her new levels of credibility.

"Once you get past the language barrier, the kids and parents are like, 'It's so cool that you're here,' " Unterberger said. "The people of this neighborhood are quite welcoming. They just want to fit in and sometimes society makes it hard.

"We want to connect the dots. We want to give them the skills they need, teach them some resilience and show how to stand up for themselves,'' she said.

It's a teaching role where Unterberger thrives.

"I think it's all driven by Dr. Unterberger's love of human beings,'' said Carlton Lewis, who serves on FICS's board of directors. "I love people, too, but I wouldn't or couldn't have done all the things she has done.

"To start an organization like she has? It has to come from the heart. Her passions are acts of love and sacrifice. This community — and the future of this community — will feel that for a long time to come.''

Contact Joey Johnston at