When Jermin LaViera came to Baltimore from Venezuela, her new husband said she needed to learn English right away. So immediately after the wedding - still in her gown - she went to an immigrant assistance center run by Catholic Charities, looking for a language class.
Before long, she had a job there helping other immigrants. And two decades later, she continues to guide new arrivals through issues both serious and not-so-serious. "People come here with all kinds of problems: 'My door is broken. I need to give a dog away," said LaViera, who now speaks fluent English. "They need a clown for a party, they call me."
Yesterday, LaViera joined co-workers, volunteers and clergy in a celebration for the center, which recently expanded to three floors of a building in the 400 block of South Broadway in Fells Point. The 45-year-old program, once known as the Hispanic Apostolate, was rechristened the Esperanza Center, after the Spanish word for hope.
Located in the heart of Baltimore's Latino immigrant community, the center provides computer and language classes, medical treatment to those without insurance and legal help with immigration to thousands of clients each year.
"We're offering services to a population that didn't have services available to them otherwise," said center director Cynthia Fickes.
The first floor of the building will be used primarily for English and computer classes, the second for medical and dental care and the third for legal services. Previously, all three programs shared one office on the third floor.
Although the majority of clients are from Mexico and Central America, others come from Africa, Asia and Europe.
Patients do not need insurance to be treated in the clinic, and there is no charge other than an optional $10 donation. Volunteers from St. Joseph Medical Center, St. Agnes and Johns Hopkins hospitals, and the Baltimore City Health Department provide primary care, dental checks, eye exams, gynecological care, immunizations and counseling.
Before the expansion, patients received medical services in mobile clinics that the hospitals would park in front of the center. Now they can check in at the waiting room and be seen in one of several examination rooms painted in soothing colors. Other rooms will be used for drawing blood, dispensing medication and counseling.
Clinic staff members said that they are still seeking donations of more equipment.
"Right now it's my perfect dental clinic - the chairs but no drill," health services manager Maureen Monroy said with a laugh. "But I guess do we do need to get a drill."
The center also provides legal services to about 800 clients looking to obtain residency or asylum or prevent deportation. One paralegal who works for the center drives to the Eastern Shore each week to meet with prisoners awaiting deportation in detention centers there.
Fickes, the director, said that the center's work is part of the Christian duty to care for those in need.
"The Lord traveled," she said. "He himself was an immigrant."
At a brief ceremony yesterday morning, Harold A. Smith, the executive director of Catholic Charities, led those assembled in a prayer. Estella Chavez, a Catholic Charities employee, sang "God Bless America" in a wavering soprano.
Lois Cannon told how she first visited the center in an attempt to drum up business for her now-defunct flower shop and to learn Spanish. Then she began to volunteer. Now retired, she drives across town twice a week to teach English at the center.
Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien prayed with the workers, volunteers and clients who had gathered and sprinkled them with holy water. Then he walked outside to bless the building, the holy water mixing with the light spring rain as drivers speeding down Broadway slowed to watch.
"This truly is a home for hope," the archbishop said.