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Q&A: Western Avenue's Camila Graunke brings own immigrant experience to Hispanic outreach position

Camila Graunke, far left, the Hispanic outreach director at Western Avenue Community Center, stands with other staff members, and the Mamás Hogareñas (Stay-at-Home Moms) group at the westside Bloomington center.
Western Avenue Community Center
Camila Graunke, left, the Hispanic outreach director at Western Avenue Community Center, stands with other staff members, and the Mamás Hogareñas (Stay-at-Home Moms) group at the westside Bloomington center.

In some form or another, the Western Avenue Community Center has been a staple social services provider on Bloomington's west side for nearly a century.

It's stood the test of time of organizational shifts, and even a structure fire. Known for its efforts in Hispanic outreach, as well as other programs for youth and seniors, Western Avenue is set on the corner of Locust Street and Western Avenue.

Camila Graunke, a graduate of Illinois State University's Wonsook Kim College of Fine Arts, is settling into her new role as Hispanic outreach director. She's been in the post since July, when longtime civic leader Socorro Alvarez retired after three decades.

WGLT caught up with Graunke, and talked about her goals for the Hispanic Outreach program, and why the artist found a second career in advocacy.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

WGLT: The center was founded in 1926. Socorro Alvarez was the director of Hispanic outreach at Western Avenue for three decades. How has the outreach developed in that period?

Western Avenue is kind of an abstract entity that meets the community's needs where they're at. And so with waves of Hispanic employees that have been brought in by State Farm, or Rivian, we have seen the waves of families that have increased our Hispanic community.

There was a time where we were having back-to-back appointments with our social services, because a lot of our incoming families were not English speakers. But now that has shifted a little bit because there are more resources in the community for the Hispanic community itself. But at Western Avenue, we provide services for social services and for interpretations and for counseling, and also programs.

Camila Graunke, Hispanic outreach director at Western Avenue Community Center, speaks Oct. 26, 2022, in the WGLT studio.
Eric Stock
Camila Graunke, Hispanic outreach director at Western Avenue Community Center, speaks Oct. 26, 2022, in the WGLT studio.

What I mean by there's more resources is that there's more Spanish speakers around the community itself. So there's members in the community that can help you at the doctor, there are more Spanish speakers that can help you at school.

And right now at Western Avenue, what we do is in partnership with other organizations. We are able to provide needs that other organizations don't yet have. And so it's not a competition.

The Immigration Project does have social services, and they have their own unique pockets of people that they are able to help, and they provide immigration aid. Whereas on our side, we have interpretations and counseling, in Spanish — which are both things that are very unique to Western Avenue.

Sometimes cost can be a barrier, but you provide that free?

There's a nonprofit organization — Integrity Counseling — that provides it in English. But in affordable Spanish counseling, I think we are one of the few.

Sometimes there's a misnomer in the community, that there's a monolithic Hispanic or Latino community. But, of course, there are so many different facets. Does your Hispanic outreach target a certain area?

In terms of Spanish speakers, Latinos here in Bloomington-Normal, there's a wide spectrum. Folks who are coming in with their spouses who were hired and brought in from a different country, in order to work here. We have documented and undocumented immigrants — all to which I love. And Western Avenue welcomes all members. When it comes to what our services provide, it's all inclusive.

That being said, in socioeconomic standings that are higher, it's likely that they have more resources to be able to help themselves.

So we are on the west side of Bloomington, and a lot of times our clientele are folks who might be able to walk to the center or take public transportation to us. We're crucially located, exactly where we need to be.

We also have food programs and things like that. We provide 100 to 150 social services, unique services, per month. That can be somebody coming in who just came from whichever Hispanic country. They need to be connected to a doctor; they need to be connected to the school; they need to be connected to immigration resources.

Is it fair to say that a lot of people come to you word of mouth?

Yes. As an immigrant myself, I know that having less family here in the United States than in my home country — you start to ask those questions, because this is a new system. This is a new home. And so, when you ask those things in a new country, those aren't basic questions. Those are survival questions.

Can you tell us a little bit about your background?

I'm from Ecuador — Quito, Ecuador. I immigrated to the United States 16 years ago, and I've been fortunate enough to be a DACA recipient myself — now a permanent resident. (DACA is shorthand for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a federal program preventing the deportation of hundreds of thousands of immigrants brought into the United States as youth.)

 Camila Graunke stands next to her work, "Una Parte de Mi," part of the permanent collection at the YMCA of McLean County.
Camila Graunke
Camila Graunke stands next to her work, "Una Parte de Mi," part of the permanent collection at the YMCA of McLean County.

All of my history — in terms of career and my artwork as well — has been a part of representing our people, representing my family, representing immigrants in my story. But also immigrants as a whole.

You attended ISU, studying fine arts. Can you tell us about your path to Hispanic outreach director?

I still continue to tell immigrant stories through art. I did a public forum when I was in my undergrad, and invited people into my family's story of coming to the United States — and telling that through pillows and embroidery, and all those things.

That continued for me in my career. When I stepped into the Immigration Project — which I was there for about a year — I walked back into a space that I had left for a while.

Growing up in the United States, sometimes it's hard as a Latina to embrace all that we are — in two different countries. What was expected was: Learn English and, yes, embrace Hispanic. But, embrace Hispanic at home.

[Graunke worked as an office manager, and later as a paralegal, at The Immigration Project.] They kindled a fire in my heart for our Hispanic community — that moved me to be in a space where I would rather be an advocate, rather than just be Hispanic at home. I am Hispanic everywhere.

I advocated for immigrants in making pillows. But I advocate for immigrants through social work and I advocate for immigrants by leading a team of people in Western Avenue who are on fire for serving our Hispanic community.

What are some areas that you'd like to focus on?

Our interpretation department is in the growth process. So our hope is to have interpretation for Spanish, French, sign language, Kirundi, Hindi — whatever other languages are needed in the community.

The second would be counseling. Counseling is something that in Spanish is not something that is affordable or within reach for our community. To be able to provide that in somebody's native tongue is really important.

[Graunke says a key goal for the bilingual counseling — which serves families, couples, and individuals — is to expand how many people are served by the program.]

Lastly, I hope our social services can be something more of the community knows about. As our board president Mike Jones has mentioned, Western Avenue seems to be a hidden gem. Not everybody knows what we offer. But our social services are crucial to a lot of people who might not be able to get things outside of Western Avenue.

[One of the Hispanic Outreach program's latest ventures is offering GED tutoring in Spanish. It just launched a few weeks ago. Graunke says that while Heartland Community College offers the GED — or general education high school equivalency degree — in both Spanish and English. The campus currently only offers tutoring for that in English.]

Michele Steinbacher is a WGLT correspondent. She joined the staff in 2020.
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