Houston Chronicle

HOUSTON (AP) _ Edgar Herrera chooses his words carefully. English remains a work in progress for him after 18 months of classes at Neighborhood Centers Inc.’s colorful Baker-Ripley campus, the keystone of a revival of the Gulfton area in southwest Houston.

Herrera puffs out his chest and stops swaying his small body.

“I’m a cook in a restaurant,” he says, smiling.

The continuous flow of old and new faces _ immigrants like Herrera as well as sixth-generation Texans _ has helped to make Neighborhood Centers, founded in 1907, one of the biggest helping hands in East Texas.

The organization is a nonprofit behemoth, with 74 service sites in 60 Texas counties. Its $263 million in services, ranging from charter schools to senior centers, give it unrivaled stature in every community it touches. The organization assisted more than 400,000 people in 2012, according to internal estimates.

Since so many of its clients are newcomers, Neighborhood Centers has become a sort of Ellis Island of Houston. It enjoys a front-row seat to the region’s unrivaled diversity, which demographers believe represents the future of the country.

Neighborhood Centers’ size, array of services and unique approach to community development have caught the attention of national urban strategists, who are encouraging other institutions to emulate its model.

“I think what places need is a vision,” said Bruce Katz, vice president of the Brookings Institution and director of its Metropolitan Policy Program. “There is no lacking capital in the United States. None … What’s needed, and what (Neighborhood Centers) is doing, is putting vision to capital.”

From language classes to basic computer skills and financial advice, all of the programs meet needs expressed by people in the community, mixed with what Neighborhood Centers knows will be in demand. When tax season was in full swing, for example, financial programs were going strong.

Neighborhood Centers’ recipe for success is so simple that volunteers and staff sometimes struggle to explain it. CEO Angela Blanchard talks about solving problems that clients identify, like needing to speak English.

“We have to understand English and how to write,” said Dipika Sodagar, 44, an immigrant from India who has advanced to an online course taught at Baker-Ripley. “We are here. We need this.”

That bottom-up approach informs every decision the organization makes, from what classes are offered during the day _ when stay-at-home moms can attend _ to what colors the walls should be painted.

Neighborhood Centers has earned deep trust within the communities it serves. In immigrant social circles that operate as welcoming committees for newcomers, word spreads quickly to check out its services.

Edgar Herrera was 19 or 20 and had been in the country less than three years when he walked onto the Baker-Ripley campus. He had never attended school in his native Guatemala, but he found his way into a free, basic class at Baker-Ripley. Now he’s writing English and wants to earn a GED and even go to college someday.

“It is a big dream,” he says.

New faces are a common sight in the lobby of Promise Credit Union on the Baker-Ripley campus.

“So many of our families come from diverse backgrounds, and they come to us by word of mouth,” says Randy Martinez, the credit union’s president.

Open five years, Promise is the go-to spot in Gulfton for savings accounts. Students at the charter school operated by Neighborhood Centers walk their pennies, nickels and bills over to the bank every week. Whether it’s their allowance or money they made recycling bottles, it’s an entry to banking practices.

For some in the neighborhood, the credit union is the best option because it does not require Social Security or federal work eligibility forms to open an account. Martinez said some residents are unable to work through the maze of paperwork required by larger banks.

“It’s very difficult to do that when there is distrust of large financial institutions,” Martinez said.

Neighborhood Centers tries to help immigrants assimilate without abandoning their home culture.

Programs challenge people to learn more about how things work in America while sharing their own perspective.

Throw pillows in the agency’s welcome center at the Baker-Ripley complex _ a village-like campus largely credited with reviving Gulfton-area apartments and communities _ were sewn by area women. The lobby is bathed in warm, welcoming colors that evoke thoughts of Spanish plazas and Middle Eastern markets.

It’s not uncommon for someone to come to the center for help and return later to help others. Iris Dones, 28, said she hopes to give back once she’s finished with her own learning.

“I think I can do volunteer work or introduce people,” Dones said.

She came from Puerto Rico a year ago, looking for work. The former teacher now stocks shelves at Wal-Mart while she brushes up on her English.

Blanchard, after 28 years at Neighborhood Centers, still lights up when she talks about the assets people bring with them. Women with extensive experience weaving, for example, just need to know a little about American business to turn a skill into a paycheck.

“We make investments in human capital,” she said.

One building over from the welcome center, Susanna Rodriguez, 32, oversees the Bumblebee Shop, a garage-sized thrift store filled mostly with children’s clothes. Stocked by donations from the community, the store is a classroom for women like Rodriguez, hoping to break into retail. They manage the inventory, handle the money and schedule themselves to keep the store open. Proceeds are turned over to Neighborhood Centers.

In return, the area has a reliable shop for kids’ clothing and toys, and the women can transfer their skills to a business of their own.

Next door, a similar theory applies to a small knitting operation where women sew scarves, hats and other items.

Rodriguez rolled through most of the language classes at Baker-Ripley after a friend turned her on to Neighborhood Centers. She’s worked at the shop for four years, since her son Adrian Duran was 8 months old. Once Adrian starts first grade and goes to school for most of the day, she hopes to snag a retail job using her new skills.

Neighborhood Centers and Houston are emblematic of the changes Blanchard and others predict will become the new normal in America. Houston’s immense in-migration of new workers and their families make it “America on fast-forward,” said Katz, the Brookings Institution researcher, who profiled Neighborhood Centers in his book, “The Metropolitan Revolution.”

In the book, Katz argues that cities should take a leading role in job creation, rather than cede economic policies to state and federal officials.

“They are quite empowered to work with companies and the research institutions,” he said.

Neighborhood Centers, supported by Houston’s civic and philanthropic communities, is a good example, Katz said, because programs tie existing skills to the kinds of jobs the community is creating.

“A large portion of those jobs don’t require college,” Katz said.