Angel Mora is a soft-spoken undocumented immigrant with a wife, two children and a job that earns him just enough to pay for their food and rent in Charlotte.
Medical care is a luxury, however, so the 40-year-old is among the thousands of Latinos who’ve been led by word of mouth to a little-known Charlotte charity that specializes in helping immigrants.
Staffed largely by Latino volunteers, the Camino Community Center operates a health clinic, food pantry, soup kitchen and thrift store, all out of a donated building in the University City area.
Mora, a native of Mexico, visited the clinic last week for help with headaches associated with hypertension.
“If not for the clinic, I would just keep living with my problems until I ended up in the emergency room,” said Mora, speaking through an interpreter.
“But I can’t pay for the emergency room, so I don’t want to go there.”
Few charities in the city turn away immigrants referred for services. In fact, others like the nonprofit Ada Jenkins Center in Davidson have translators on staff and report that Latinos account for more than a third of its clients. The center’s programs also include a pantry and health clinic.
However, the immigrant turnout at Camino Community Center is closer to 90 percent, and an estimated 65 percent are undocumented.
Most charities prefer not to publicize their immigrant services, for fear of angering donors during the nation’s contentious debate over immigration.
Camino is the opposite. Its organizers are open about their immigrant outreach, particularly when it comes to helping the men, women and children who are undocumented.
That’s because such immigrants are the ones least likely to seek help, due to fear of authorities, lack of money or lack of English language skills, said the Rev. Rusty Price, whose Camino Church started the charity.
Camino’s programs do not exclude U.S. citizens. In fact, they account for an increasing number of those helped since the start of the economic downturn.
Price has a long history of relief work with Latinos, starting with an outreach effort in Cuba called World Reach. However, he shifted his focus to Charlotte in 2004 after a visiting Latino acquaintance died of a heart attack. The death was due partly to the man’s inability to understand English during an emergency room visit, Price said.
“It exposed a major gap in the system. We’re dealing with a population that is so invisible and so vulnerable,” Price said. “I don’t think people in Charlotte realize what a huge chasm we have and I felt we had to do something to help in this community.”
The clinic has since helped 3,500 low-income patients and provided 8,500 doctor visits, using doctors who donate their time. Some patients come in with conditions that are serious and even life-threatening, said Wendy Pascual, who manages the clinic.
Among the saddest stories, she said, was a restaurant employee who suffered second-degree burns while at work. The women, a Latina, finished her shift at work in excruciating pain, out of fear she’d lose her job, Pascual said. “I started to cry and had to leave the room when I heard that.”
The agency’s pantry also hears its share of sad stories, including mothers left to raise children alone after a husband – the family breadwinner – was deported.
It serves about 5,000 families annually, representing about 20,000 people.
“We’ve had families here that did not have food in the home for two or three days,” Price said.
Ana Rosa Farrera, who helped launch the pantry, said the agency remains in constant need of financial help, because it receives no federal money or large donations.
Most of the $200,000 annual budget comes from members of the Camino Church (with a congregation of about 500) and small grants, with Loaves & Fishes supplying food to the pantry, Farrera said.
Mora said his family has also visited the pantry, when finding construction work was tough. He has been in Charlotte five years, and has seen jobs slow to a trickle and then pick up again.
Currently, he’s working four days a week, up from two days a week a few months ago.
He’s grateful to Charlotteans for their kindness, loves the city, and says his biggest fear is being stopped by the police and identified as undocumented. That would likely lead to deportation, he said.
“I miss Mexico, but I don’t want to go home because it’s violent and there is no work there,” he said.
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