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Cara Means ‘Friend’ and We Have One in Northwest Center

As part of Cara Connects’ 10th anniversary, we are sharing stories highlighting our key moments and our community. This piece first ran in September 2021.

This Labor Day, we are highlighting the community organization who made it possible for Cara Connects to expand our reach to the northwest side of Chicago, our co-location partner, Northwest Center. Together, we help job seekers in the Belmont Cragin neighborhood get back to work and transform their lives.

How Our Friendship Began

Sasha Ongtengco, Former Director of Cara Connects

“Cara Connects was ready to go out into neighborhoods and partner with organizations invested in their local communities. We wanted to meet more job seekers where they are, across the city.

“I contacted a list of fellows who Cara Collective Chief Program Officer, Bob White, knew from the Chicago Leadership Academy at the University of Chicago. I pitched the idea of working together, and James Rudyk, the Executive Director of Northwest Center, took to it.

“Our new partnership was exciting for many reasons, one being that Northwest Center works in communities with a high number of Latinx and immigrant residents. And very much like Cara Collective, Northwest Center builds relationships with their participants; they see their work as a partnership with the community and not a transaction.

“The center is located in the Belmont Cragin neighborhood, far from downtown and from our other campuses. So with our co-location model, the idea is to have Cara Connects staff work out of the Northwest Center in order to be present in communities we hadn’t reached and build relationships to be more inclusive.

“The first thing I had in mind to make our partnership a success was predicated on us having the right hire, a person who is going to meaningfully engage with Northwest Center’s community. It took a very special person and I was nervous about that hire, until I interviewed Mariel Corona.

“Mariel was a Cara participant at the time, and she knew how to build partnerships based on mutuality. Immediately after she was hired, Mariel immersed herself into Northwest Center and really took the time to become a part of their community by attending events, meetings, and staff retreats.

“Mariel, James, and I began to see that this co-location partnership could be successful because neither of our organizations can do it all; but what we each do, we do very well. Cara Collective could have opened up an office on the northwest side, but apart from the financial obstacles, I don’t know that it would have worked because we weren’t established there yet, unlike Northwest Center who is so trusted in the community.”

Mariel Corona, Director of Cara Connects

 “I came to Cara in June of 2018, and by that September, I was working at Northwest Center three days a week as an onsite representative of Cara Connects. I started getting more and more involved at the center because these were my new colleagues and I wanted to understand their programs and services.

“I was so interested in the work of their Financial Opportunity Center (FOC) that I got to know everything FOC. I became the workforce-led component of the center, because before Cara Connects joined their team, they weren’t equipped with a job readiness program.

“After I became well-versed in their programs, I was able to engage Northwest Center’s community on a deeper level, and it always tied back to being underemployed or unemployed. I assist them with ways to earn an income and start a career.

“Even with the pandemic and less in-person conversations, our connection to the northwest side community hasn’t changed. We were able to really conquer the digital divide, making everything virtual and still provide services like our digital and financial literacy program, Adelante.

“Today, everyone in the community connects Northwest Center with Cara Collective, and we are grateful to the team at Northwest Center for making it possible.”

Your support of Cara Collective helps fuel the work of Cara Connects. As we celebrate 10 years of connecting top talent and quality employers, please consider making a donation at www.caracollective.org/connects10.