Food bank at Instituto del Progreso Latino

Instituto del Progreso Latino pivots to keep their community safe


“What folks need right now is different than last month, and next month it will change again. So we keep listening and learning to understand how we can help,” says Karina Ayala-Bermejo, CEO of Instituto del Progreso Latino. “When we can respond right away to the needs of our community, that’s where we can really make a difference.”

The COVID-19 crisis has forced many organizations to react quickly and nimbly to an unprecedented and unpredictable situation. At BMO, we’ve reached out to our customers and communities, and promptly implemented a number of new programs and services in response to their needs. And we seek to work with community partners who are similarly innovative and flexible in the face of change. One such partner is Instituto del Progreso Latino.

Instituto’s mission is to contribute to the fullest development of Latino immigrants and their families through education, training, and employment. Operating for more than 43 years, Instituto is a pillar organization in Chicago operating two charter schools, a free nursing college and several adult job skills programs and immigration programs. They’re nationally recognized for their highly effective pioneering adult pathway programs.

A quick pivot

Instituto was quick to react when the COVID-19 crisis began, closing their doors and moving to online learning models before stay-at-home orders had even been issued. “It was an immediate pivot,” says Karina. Their first priority was getting a laptop to every single student at the Instituto’s various schools. “Many students live in a home with a shared computer – but we knew they needed their own device to do schoolwork,” says Karina. “The digital divide is immense, and for us to be successful in our goal of breaking the cycle of poverty – which we do through education – we had to get digital equipment for students.”

Instituto had approximately 300 laptops available for students, but they needed another 400. That was our first opportunity to help.

“BMO has been so extraordinarily generous. Right away, they offered us devices for the students,” says Karina. “And then that act of generosity sparked many other acts of generosity. We started getting laptops from YMCA and other community partners. Everyone contributed in small ways to make a big collective difference.”

A strong partnership

BMO has long had a presence on Instituto’s board and a leadership role in their programming. Wendy Raymer, Director, Community Giving at BMO, currently serves on Instituto’s board. “We consider them one of our priority relationships, because their mission and programs align so strongly with BMO’s three giving pillars: innovation, collaboration and learning,” she says.

Instituto is also a BMO client, and recently we assisted them in getting a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan, the federal emergency loan for businesses suffering through the COVID-19 crisis. We were able to secure more than $2 million for Instituto. “BMO is our partner in so many ways, and every nonprofit needs partners to make it through this crisis,” says Karina.

“Small business customers need to know their bank is there for them in good times and in bad,” says Niamh Kristufek, Head of Business Banking for BMO Harris Bank. “Instituto del Progreso Latino continues to evolve their programs to meet the community’s needs and we are very glad the PPP loan will enable them continue to do that.”

Because of the COVID-19 crisis, Instituto had to cancel a gala that was expected to bring in more than $350,000. “Combined with the crisis, the loss of that revenue is extremely stressful. We’re so incredibly grateful to have that loan – it means we don’t have to lay off staff, so we can keep running all our programs. That buffer makes all the difference in continuing to serve our community,” says Karina.

Listening and responding

As they collected personal computers for students, Instituto also sent a survey to their community members and students. “We knew there were going to be challenges and barriers, and we didn’t want to assume we would know what all the barriers would be,” says Karina. The survey yielded interesting results. “We saw that within our community, 60% of homes had lost jobs, and 40% had reduced income. So direct services were important; basic needs like food, gift cards for gas, and support services that come with taking care of families.”

Instituto sprang into action. They became a food distribution center, setting up a pop-up drive-in food bank and mobile pantry that also distributes PPE, diapers, and other personal and household essentials. They offered remote case managers for unemployment services. And a couple weeks ago, they held their first virtual job fair. “We can’t do what we used to do, but we can find new ways to do it – and we can be a leader in that new space,” says Karina.

Another area of need was childcare. Instituto partnered with the YMCA to provide emergency free childcare for essential workers and people who have to work. “Many people in our community do not have to option of staying home or the luxury of not working,” says Karina. “The Latino community has higher numbers of COVID-19, and it’s because many in our community are essential workers. And in fact, more than half of the bilingual nurses in the state of Illinois were part of our Instituto‘s programs – in particular ‘Carreras en Salud,’ the healthcare career pathway.  Our community is very challenged by this crisis. So we need a unique – and effective – approach to it.”

Wendy has welcomed the opportunity to work alongside Instituto as they navigate this crisis. “They could have just shut down their facility, but that’s not their way,” she says. “Instead they’ve found new ways of providing aid and education. They’re community heroes.”

Instituto plans to continue to listen, learn, and pivot as the crisis goes on. They are taking care of their community – and BMO is proud to support them like they’re supporting the Hispanic community in Chicago.

“I’m so inspired by the members of our team – our familia – here. They’ve been so brave and bold at a scary time,” says Karina. “It gives me hope to see the love with which our team provide services, and the innovation that everyone is willing to embrace – as we move forward together.”

Learn more about BMO’s commitment to diversity and inclusion and recent announcements.

Learn more about BMO’s support of employees, customers and community partners, and how employees are reaching out to their communities.



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