The mission of Las Americas is to “serve and develop functional and successful Latino youth and children of all ages and to help them make a smooth transition into the American school system and lifestyle.” It does this by empowering students through outreach, missions and recreational and educational programs.
Las Americas programming includes ESL (English as Second Language) tutoring and teacher assistance in 13 schools; after-school tutoring and homework help; character building programs; and a youth soccer league. All of that programming and more is held at Las Americas’ two locations in Hickory Hill and Berclair.
Las Americas’ origins goes back nearly 30 years to the early days of its executive director Greg Diaz’s American experience. The youngest of 10 children, he and some of his siblings stayed behind in Mexico City while his older siblings were in Houston. His brother Noe had lung cancer and needed treatment. On a weekend visit in Houston when he was 12, Diaz’s mother decided she couldn’t take the separation of her family living in two cities. That was a Sunday night. Diaz found himself in a new school by that Wednesday. It was a terrifying moment for him.
On his third day of school, Diaz wanted to do a math problem in class. He asked a friend how to say teacher in English. He instead told him a curse word. “I of course got in trouble,” he said. “I asked permission to go to the restroom because I was crying. I promised God right then that if He ever gave me the opportunity to do for other children what nobody did for me, I would.”
After attending seminary in Mexico, Diaz and his wife, Daisy, moved to Nashville where he pastored a church. When they decided to plant a church they moved to Memphis. “A few years into pastoring, God reminded me of that promise I made,” Diaz said. “So we opened the doors of our church to serve children of our community.”
That was in 2004. One kid came but that quickly grew to the nearly 600 students served today. Students from 68 schools in the Memphis area attend some sort of programming at Las Americas, whether it’s to participate in the soccer league or for youth engagement, ESL programs, character building groups or reading programs.
The organization has grown organically, largely based on its reputation. The staff is bilingual and understands the culture and needs of the community they serve. It helps that Diaz has built an organization based on his own experiences.
“My mother couldn’t help me with my homework. She cleaned houses. When I got out of school I’d run to the rich suburbs to help her clean so we could make ends meet. I wanted to play baseball and football and, if not for the coaches who stepped in and provided equipment, I probably wouldn’t have had the chance.”
There is a need for more staff so they can serve more students, but additional funding is needed as well. The organization depends heavily on volunteers and always welcomes anyone who wants to make the commitment.
Las Americas will hold a children’s day festival May 5 at Treadwell Middle School from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. The free event will feature free food, carnival rides and T-shirts for all children. Adults can purchase shirts to help offset the costs of feeding the children. The festival will have authentic Mexican food for sale, salsa bands, a DJ and other entertainment. Learn more at lamemphis.org.
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