After 10 years, El Sol still controversial in Jupiter

Updated Sept 09, 2016

Anti-immigration slogans greeted the El Sol Neighborhood Resource Center in 2006 when it opened as a meeting place for employers seeking workers and those looking for jobs — many who were migrants without American citizenship.

A decade later, El Sol is an important part of the community that provides jobs, holds classes, grows food in its community garden, distributes free meals, operates a food bank with CROS Ministries, hosts medical clinics, teaches job safety programs and sells colorful artwork hanging on the walls at the center next to Town Hall on Military Trail, say supporters.

“El Sol has provided us a means for getting ahead in life,” said Tito Perez, who has found work at the center since it opened. “It has given us the opportunity to grow as individuals and I’m very thankful. Everything I have, it is because of El Sol.”

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El Sol officials don’t ask workers their immigration status. Local residents seeking work must show picture identification to prove they live in Jupiter. Wages are negotiated between the worker and employer. Wages and hours are verified by El Sol officials. The average hourly wage is between $10-$12, said Dora Valdivia, El Sol’s associate director.

“Before El Sol, many workers were not getting paid the agreed amount. The working standards were substandard. El Sol gives them the dignity of finding resources they did not know exist,” Valdivia said.

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While the protesters have gone from El Sol, that doesn’t mean the opposition has vanished, said Jupiter resident John Parsons, one of the leaders of the groups that demonstrated against El Sol.

“Why are we catering to people who are breaking our laws? They are taking American jobs,” Parsons said.

Facing mounting complaints about workers gathering along Center Street a decade ago, the town passed a law making soliciting for jobs — and motorists picking them up — illegal.

Jupiter then bought a two-story building next to Town Hall in 2006 from LifeSong Church for $1.9 million. The town leases the building to El Sol, a non-profit, 501(c)3 organization, for $1 annually. The town pays utilities.

Immigrants to Palm Beach County are not the only people who use the programs at El Sol, said Jupiter Country Estates resident Manuel Bueno, a retired engineer who has for about two years volunteered as a cook at El Sol. Bueno, who speaks Spanish, also volunteers to teach language classes.

About one-third of those seeking work at El Sol are American citizens. About half of those who come for free meals are homeless and/or have substance-abuse problems, figures Bueno, a Vietnam veteran. Many who come in are Bueno’s fellow veterans who are homeless and have psychological problems, he said.

El Sol is not taking jobs from Americans, he said. Most Americans don’t want the low-paying landscaping, digging and other jobs available at El Sol, he said.

El Sol is helping people with mental and addiction problems get on their feet. And El Sol has eliminated the problem of workers hanging out on Center Street, he said.

“That’s the missing link the public doesn’t see,” Bueno said.

El Sol’s annual budget is about $1.6 million. The organization received about $600,000 from the in-kind donation of services, about $500,000 comes from private/foundation/nonprofit grants, about 300,000 from donations from businesses and about $200,000 comes from unrestricted cash donations. AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers work at El Sol.

Labor centers such as El Sol have failed in other communities. A day-labor center in Loxahatchee Groves closed in 2011. Another in Lake Worth on Lucerne Avenue closed in that same year. Both were open about two years.

Credit El Sol’s success to reaching out with programs to the entire public, said Jupiter Police Chief Frank Kitzerow.

“Some people felt threatened when El Sol first opened. But El Sol is now an important community partner. Programs like job training and the food pantry have built a connection with the entire community,” Kitzerow said.

El Sol — named after both the sun in the sky and its founder, Sol Silverman, who died in 2005 — put Jupiter in the national spotlight.

A movie called Brother Towns was made about the evolution of the center. Jupiter has a sister-city relationship with Jacaltenango, Guatemala, the hometown of many workers at El Sol. The New York Times and other national publications have written about how Jupiter has found a way to deal with the complex issue of immigration while the federal government has not.

A celebration of El Sol’s 10th anniversary is planned on Oct. 22 and 23.

“This celebration will help us recognize how people in this town came together to resolve a problem that continues to baffle communities across the country,” said Jocelyn Skolnik, a native of Guatemala and executive director of El Sol since 2010.

Artists, vendors, music, food, entertainment and activities for cbildren are planned for the 10-year celebration. For tickets or information about El Sol, go to friendsofelsol.org, or call 561-745-9860