PATERSON, NJ - Ligia Gonzalo knew her son should have special education. But she was having trouble getting him the services he needed. So she turned to her friend, Jesus Castro, for help. Castro had experience working the system on behalf of children, he knew a little something about navigating the bureaucracy of school districts. 

With Castro's assistance, Gonzalo was able get a special education Individualized Education Program for her son, as well as assistance for her daughter. The two friends realized they were on to something. As a result, back in July, the two of them decided to start a support group to try to empower people like Gonzalo, to provide them with information for child advocacy, to share experiences, to make parents more savvy and less dependent on government agencies. They call their group the Hispanic Council on Social Policy.

Castro is an example of a citizen who saw a need in his community and took the steps to organize a group of similarly-concerned people to try to bring about change. He went above and beyond what most folks would do.

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Castro said his grassroots support group focuses on parents with children experiencing behavioral difficulties.  Its goal to reach out to at-risk populations to get them help. He has big plans for the future. The group hopes to identify gaps in the system - the cracks through which children who need help are falling - and to become a safety net for those children. The Hispanic Council meets at the Paterson Public Library  (http://www.patersonpl.org/) in order to keep their meetings open, as an invitation to the Paterson community to join them.

Here's some of PatersonPress.com's interview with Castro:

Tell a little about yourself and how the Hispanic Council was founded.

I have been a long time advocate of children and family services. I stated out advocating for children back in 2001 with the NJ State Partnership for Children (PFC). Over the years, I have maintained the notion that individuals should strive for self-sufficiency and take control of the situation consuming them. I currently still work with children with complex behavioral issues and felt that the Hispanic Council was a new opportunity to assist Shadow Youth (often called “Shadow Children” as well and referring to children deemed At-Risk) that go under-served.  

The original founders met as peers with similar backgrounds and social situations. The founding Board was broken up in categories as follows: 

Yashira Gonzalez- Caretaker/Community Member

Ligia Gonzalo- Caretaker/Community Member

Jesus Castro- Family Member/Community Member

Hosheena Onfroy-Family/Community Member

What goes on in an average group meeting?

On a normal group, after discussion, we provide information on current events or referrals to community agencies for parents in need of food pantries or emergency services. Our group is not formed of professionals. We try to network and seek information, based on the issues commented on in the group.

Parents use the group as a way to vent frustration on the way providers handle cases or on school issues among other things. As issues are presented, we try to find ways to advocate for those issues as parents and community members. Our current goal is to present the issues as a group in an effort to affect public policy.

The word “Hispanic” is in your organization’s name, what do you see to be any specific obstacles that Hispanic children face in Paterson?   Is the group at this time made up of primarily Hispanic members and if so do you see that changing in the future or do you think there is a need for a focused group like that to have your voices heard?

Our name means just that we propose to advocate for social change for the fast growing under-served Hispanic community in the city of Paterson. Our children face a great many issues that affect families, most notable the language barrier and cultural differences. This problem often surpasses those of other groups as we have less Hispanic teachers and Hispanic resources in general for non-English speaking youth.

Although we are focused on the Hispanic issues, African American issues, in regards to social disparities, are often the same. We are very much interested in the issues of African Americans because these are our brothers and sisters we live, work and have families with. Why would we ignore their issues? If we fight for one, we must fight for all.

Our Board is not entirely Hispanic, we have 3 African American members: Heather Wilkey, Joyce Schulyer and Hosheena Onfroy

Are there organizations in Paterson that you have aligned yourselves with or have been useful resources for your group?

So far we have attempted to inform other agencies of our presence but that's as far it goes. Most agencies at least in Paterson have bigger fish to fry. Our biggest supporter has been Lorenzo T Hernandez, MSW over at the Hispanic Information Center of Passaic. This agency has been very gracious to us and really honest in its mission in bringing hope and compassion to those most in need.

What do you see the role of a parent to be in policy making regarding children’s rights and health care?  There seems to be a strong movement in the Paterson community with parents stepping up to take control of their child’s education and health needs, have the parents in the group become more proactive since joining the group?

Our parents have definitely become more self-empowered. This is a product of support, not just of a group, but support from individuals that have prior knowledge of an unforgiving system such as the children's mental health system. This system, although it means well, pushes families apart.  Children often are separated from the family because the resources the child needs are not within the community. This is when families get together a make the difference for change. They advocate not just for themselves but for the community at large to the local stakeholders.

If other parents in the community want to become involved with your group, how can they reach you?

They can call us at 973-388-1342. We are on break for the holidays but our Support Groups will resume January 4th, 2011 at the Paterson Free Public Library from 6pm to 8pm. We are on Facebook as well.