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NE Ohio Latino Leaders among Distinguished Hispanic Ohioans

By La Prensa Staff

The Latino leaders of two long-time, well-established social service organizations in Northeast Ohio are among the Distinguished Hispanic Ohioans recognized at a recent awards dinner in Columbus by the Ohio Commission on Hispanic/Latino Affairs (OCHLA).

The Governor’s 39th annual Distinguished Hispanic Ohioan Awards Gala Oct. 26, 2019 honored individuals and organizations that have demonstrated outstanding achievements in their professional or community service endeavors, and who serve as role models for the growing Hispanic community in Ohio.


Mary Lou Reyes


The Distinguished Hispanic Ohioan awardees included Mary Lou Reyes, executive director of Organización Cívica y Cultural Hispana Americana, Inc. (OCCHA) in Youngstown and Victor Ruiz, executive director of Esperanza, Inc. in Cleveland.

OCCHA is a non-profit organization founded in 1972 to identify problem areas in the Spanish-speaking communities in Mahoning, Trumbull, and Columbiana counties and establish programs to address them. The non-profit’s mission is to strive to improve the quality of life for Hispanics and others in the multicultural community by providing social, economic, cultural, and educational programs.

Ms. Reyes took the helm at OCCHA in 2014, following her retirement as a Girl Scout executive.

She had previously won the Outstanding Hispanic Volunteer Award from OCCHA for her many years of mentoring and service. Ms. Reyes was also inducted in 2017 into the League of Women Voters of Greater Youngstown Hall of Fame, among several other professional honors.

OCCHA provides social services, food and clothing distribution, technical services, computer technology lab, Head Start, Zumba classes, among other programs and services. At least nine of its 12 board members are of Latino origin.

OCCHA’s work has become even more important in recent years, especially following last year’s immigration raid at a Salem-area meat processing plant. The Latino population in the Mahoning Valley continues to grow steadily at a time when the U.S. population growth has slowed considerably. 90 percent of the families served by OCCHA only speak Spanish.

“We’re getting a lot more multicultural Hispanics. At one time it was predominantly Mexicans and Puerto Ricans, but now we’re having a lot of other immigrants coming in,” Ms. Reyes recently told local publication The Jambar.

OCCHA hosts a number of signature fundraisers throughout the year, including its annual Latin Food Fest, which funds its youth programs. The organization just observed its 47th annual gala fundraiser over the weekend at Stambaugh Auditorium. OCCHA also stepped up to partner with Hometown Pharmacy to organize a care package for Hurricane María victims in Puerto Rico.

Victor Ruiz, a native of Puerto Rico, has served as Esperanza’s executive director for just shy of a decade, a faith-based nonprofit organization that strengthens Hispanic communities through education, economic development, and advocacy.

While Esperanza began in the 1980s to promote better educational opportunities for Latinos through scholarships, the organization has challenged the high school dropout rate and worked to improve academic achievement in the schools of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. 

During the last several years, Esperanza has grown its budget to more than $2 million, primarily because the organization added evidence-based mentoring, leadership, and academic assistance programs while under the guidance of Ruiz. Latino leaders credit him for moving the needle in a positive direction when it comes to high school graduation rates and the number of Latino students entering higher education or workforce education programs.

Back in August, Esperanza was awarded a $52,000 grant from the Larry Doby Fund to expand its successful teen mentoring program. The foundation is named after the second African-American to play professional baseball. Doby joined the Cleveland Indians just months after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the major leagues.

In the last three years, the graduation rate in Cleveland for Hispanics has gone up over 20 percent and over 90 percent of students who participate in Esperanza’s tutoring and mentoring program achieve high school graduation. The nonprofit starts with students in the sixth grade.

Ruiz has expanded his influence as a Latino leader in Greater Cleveland well beyond Esperanza. He joined the board of trustees at Cuyahoga Community College in 2012 and, earlier this year, earned a fellowship at the National Institute for Latino School Leaders (NILSL), which is run by Unidos US (formerly National Council of La Raza). He previously served as the board president of the Hispanic Alliance, an umbrella advocacy group representing multiple Latino-serving organizations and programs.

In the past several years, Ruiz and Esperanza have co-led relief efforts for Puerto Rican families who fled the aftermath of Hurricane María and resettled in the Cleveland area. Many of those individuals and families only spoke Spanish and needed help to find housing, jobs, household items, educational opportunities, and medical facilities.

Ruiz lost his own father in 2017 to the hurricane. He died just days after Hurricane María wrecked the U.S. territory and knocked out electricity to the entire island. Their family home on the island was completely destroyed and his father was unable to get the medication he needed.

US Census estimates pegged the Puerto Rican population in Greater Cleveland at about 107,000 at the time of the hurricane. That population has swelled to nearly 200,000 just in the past couple of years, as thousands of families decided to stay after relocating near other family or in enclaves.



Copyright © 1989 to 2019 by [LaPrensa Publications Inc.]. All rights reserved.
Revised: 11/05/19 20:17:44 -0800.




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