Since 1997, PODER Learning Center has served as a launchpad to good jobs and better futures for more than 13,000 Latinx immigrants and first-generation residents living on Chicago’s Southwest Side. Five years ago, PODER closed its original Pilsen location and began operating satellite sites near Midway Airport to reach its fast-growing target population better. With strong relationships and a track record of service in these new communities, the organization is now ready to establish new headquarters at a beautiful historic building in Gage Park. A Pre-Development Fund grant from the Trust will allow PODER to complete its plans for redeveloping the building into Chicago’s first community center combining immigrant integration and job services. Located at 55th Street and Homan Avenue, the center will be an economic catalyst, bringing beauty and vibrancy to this Gage Park corridor.
With over 500 percent growth over the last decade, the Southwest Side communities of West Lawn, Gage Park, Chicago Lawn, and Brighton Park now serve as the entry point for thousands of our region’s newest Americans. Many of these individuals are underemployed, despite having marketable skills such as Spanish language fluency. Currently, 11.2 percent of Latinx residents ages 16 through 64 living in PODER’s service area are unemployed, compared to the 7.9 percent national unemployment rate. Nearly half do not speak English at all or very well.
PODER has honed a unique program pathway design that prepares immigrants to find successful and fulfilling careers in customer service, insurance, and financial services. Participants progress through multiple training levels, from English language literacy to career exploration, customer service certification, industry-specific job training, and job placement. With 13 bank and insurance partners—including Bank of America, Chase, Allstate, and State Farm—trainees receive guaranteed interviews and have an 84 percent placement rate with 34 percent wage gains. PODER not only generates immediate economic impact for individuals and families, but also lays the foundation for upward mobility of future generations.
PODER’s signature programs will be anchored at its new headquarters. Constructed in 1932, the building was originally an electric substation. Ownership is currently transferring from the City of Chicago to PODER, and the pre-development grant from the Trust is supporting pre-construction activities, such as zoning and legal fees and architectural and engineering services. When completed in 2022, the new center will annually bring more than 2,500 students and visitors to the area as prospective customers and employees for local businesses, including a childcare center and multiple restaurants. The lot next door will become a zócalo, or public gathering area, offering shaded paths, benches, and event space in a neighborhood with little open space. A three-year commitment from Comcast’s Lift Zone initiative will provide free Wi-Fi in the zócalo.
Daniel Loftus, PODER’s founder and executive director, said: “It’s not enough for PODER’s resources to exist. They must be visible and accessible. The new center will provide this opportunity and serve as a conduit, creating a more vibrant and economically viable Gage Park and greater Southwest Side.”