Historic Center for the People of Union City
Centro de Servicios was established in 1974 as a 501c3 nonprofit to provide social services and legal aid to low-income Union City families. There was great public interest and support for the concept, and between 15 and 20 people were involved in governing the organization in its early years. Some of the original board members of Centro included Richard Valle, now Alameda County Supervisor, attorney Frank Roesch, and community activist Bert Perez, among others. Jaime Jaramillo, who later became Centro’s Executive Director, was one of the original founders of Centro.
Location and Origins
Centro is located in an old Quonset hut on H St., but how the building actually got there is a bit of a mystery. Thousands of these prefabricated buildings were constructed of corrugated steel during World War II, and then sold after the war as military surplus. It came to Union City from Texas, and in 1947 the Decoto Variety and Fountain store was opened by Manuel Hidalgo. In the early 1960s, Al and Marcella Roderigues took over the store and renamed it the Crescent Market. Centro’s location has been the site of some form of community store almost continuously since the late 1940s.
When Centro moved into the Quonset hut in the 1970s, Union City was primarily a Latino community, composed of farmworkers, cannery workers, steel mill employees, and other blue-collar laborers. There were two main districts, Decoto and Alvarado, and Centro was established in the heart of Decoto, on the East side of the city.
The first Director of Centro de Servicios was Maria Vizcarra, and one of the important services that Centro first offered was Legal Aid. Legal services were provided under the leadership of attorneys Frank Roesch and Peggy Hora, both of whom later became respected judges in Alameda County. During those years, there was no storefront in the Quonset hut, with offices taking over much of the building. With a start-up grant of $10,000 from the City of Union City, critical services at Centro then included immigration assistance, language classes, and skills training to help people overcome barriers to advancement and financial security.
Reorganization and Expansion
In the early 1990s, the Quonset hut and the house adjacent to it were acquired by the City, and Centro moved its offices into the house at the back of the hut. Legal Aid services were scaled back, and social service referrals were expanded. With some administration activities moved outside the Quonset hut, the building once again had space for an informal thrift store operation.
Over the years, Centro was forced to further reduce its service offerings as larger agencies in the region secured greater operational funding and provided more aid programs. Centro’s future was bleak, and in 1993, a Hayward organization called La Familia took over operations for a two-year period, and a serious threat to close Centro was looming.
In 1995, Union City’s Police Chief Al Guzman led a Community Policing initiative in the City and established its base of operations at Centro. This decision was transformational, as it brought members of the community back to Centro. Jaime Jaramillo was hired as the Executive Director in 1996, and Centro once again began to thrive and fulfill its mission to serve.
The Centro Store
The Centro thrift store in the 1990s was simply located in a small back room of the facility, but it accepted donations of unneeded clothing and household items and made them available for purchase by the public. A clothing donation drive by students at California State University Hayward brought inventory by the bagful to Centro, and the news spread rapidly by word-of-mouth.
It was always a great place to find a bargain, but in reality, Centro was the place where a job hunter could find an affordable interview suit, or where a young single mother could pick up gently used baby clothes for a song. The downside was that patrons often had to dig through bags full of clothing in the back room to find that hidden treasure.
Clearly, Centro’s store was considered an essential resource by the community. It was time for the store to take over the Quonset hut and begin retail operations in earnest. The Vegas family donated a full set of clothing racks and display cases, and volunteers joined Centro staff to create the store. Today, the Centro Store is a trusted resource, and a reliable source of income to fund Centro’s social services programs.
The life cycle of a nonprofit always includes periods when its operating income is threatened and shoestring budgets are stretched to the limit. The dawn of the 21st century was one of those times. A major source of funding for Centro had been a recurring community development block grant, and in 2001 those monies were redirected to another program.
Decades of service to the needy in the community create an abundance of goodwill, and one of Centro’s “success stories” jumped in to save the day. In the early 1990s, a promising young student named Enrique Martinez was given a $200 college scholarship by Centro. He went on to graduate from Yale University and UCLA School of Law and was admitted to the California State bar in 2000.
Martinez never forgot how he got his start and the support that Centro provided to needy families like his own. After establishing his law practice, he became a major donor to Centro with a six-figure charitable contribution that kept the doors open during a time of great need.
Social problems including homelessness and hunger became increasingly significant over the next decade, and Centro ramped up its food distribution program. It established a commercial walk-in refrigerator for food storage and began to offer food to the hungry on a daily basis, no questions asked.
The COVID pandemic that began in 2020 presented unforeseen challenges to Centro, but it also created greater opportunities to be of service to the community. While the Centro store was forced to close for a period of time, Centro provided COVID test kits to thousands of people and provided information and medical referrals to its clients.
Today, the Centro Store is thriving. Food is given away daily, and staff provides advice, support, and referrals in the areas of immigration, family law, housing, employment, and much more. The doors are open, and everyone is welcome.