FREMONT - Voces Unidas started out five years ago as an effort to register Hispanic voters in Sandusky County.
Now, under a small group of founders, including Louis Guardiola, Voces Unidas has become the organization many Sandusky County officials look for when they want to reach the county's burgeoning Latino community.
Mr. Guardiola recently was elected president of the organization. He replaces Maria Chavez, who moved to Texas.
“I think people are realizing that the Latino community is becoming larger, and we want to be inclusive,” said Mr. Guardiola, a quality-assurance manager with Lucas County Children Services.
Latinos are the largest minority group in Sandusky County, making up 7 percent of the county's population and 11 percent in Fremont. Mr. Guardiola said the perception, though, is that African-Americans make up a larger population.
“We've been more focused over the past five years,” Mr. Guardiola said. “I think there have been times we've been so enthusiastic that we tried to do a lot of things at one time, and it was too much. Now, we are setting priorities and collaborating with other groups.”
The group has established programs that quickly have become a gathering point for Latinos in Sandusky County and the people who want to connect with them.
On Sept. 22, Voces Unidas will present its fourth annual cultural celebration, Celebracion Latina, capped by a scholarship dance that evening at the Sandusky County fairgrounds in Fremont. The organization will team with Terra Community College on Oct. 4 at 6 p.m. for its Estrella awards, which recognize Latino community leaders in the Fremont area.
Mr. Guardiola has taken it upon himself to help mold Hispanic leaders. For two years, he has taken Hispanic students to the National Council of La Raza conventions.
La Raza, established in 1968, has become one of the foremost social advocacy organizations for Latinos in the country.
The national convention this summer in Milwaukee featured Mexican president Vicente Fox.
Students who were taken to San Diego during the convention last summer crossed over to Tijuana during national voting and witnessed Mr. Fox's historic election victory in person.
Mr. Guardiola said it was a chance for students to meet many professional Latinos and learn about many of the issues and concerns that affect Hispanics around the country.
Irma Celestino, vice president and another founder of Voces Unidas, said Mr. Guardiola helped define the organization's agenda and what it should become.
“Louis has been there from the beginning and has been very involved,” said Ms. Celestino. “Louis brings a lot to the table, as do many of us. He's well organized and he speaks his mind.”
Mr. Guardiola is a member of the minority recruitment committee in Fremont Public Schools. The school district has been trying to increase the number of minority faculty for several years now. Through Mr. Guardiola, the district hired Bonita Cruz as an elementary teacher this year.
Miss Cruz was one of the students Mr. Guardiola took to a recent National Council of La Raza Convention.
“[Mr. Guardiola] has been a big asset for our community and the school district,'' said Ronald King, superintendent of the Fremont schools. “He's been a very important resource for us, and he's a big supporter of the district. Bonita Cruz is doing an outstanding job, and we're excited to have her.”
Ms. Celestino said the larger community is still learning about Latino culture and issues and that many things the group does involve educating the public. She said it's pleasing to see Voces Unidas accepted by the public.
“I think it's nice when people start coming to you and say we have something going on [and] would you like to be involved,” Ms. Celestino said. “I think it's a tribute to what Louis and all us have done, and it's a recognition of the Hispanic community here.”
Mr. Guardiola said he sees Voces Unidas eventually growing into more of a social service organization, akin to Adelante, Inc., in Toledo. He said a full-service social service agency for Hispanics in Sandusky County is needed and that Voces Unidas can move slowly to fill that void.