Centro Hispano’s new ED anxious to connect with area Latinos

Karen Menendez Coller was a young teenager when her family left their homeland of El Salvador to escape an unstable economy and civil repercussions. Her father, an attorney, relocated the family to the San Francisco Bay Area before establishing roots in Los Angeles, which Menendez Coller still considers home. 

She’s been on the move ever since. After high school, Menendez Coller got an undergraduate degree in molecular and cell biology from UC-Berkeley. “I always wanted to help people,” she said. “So I thought I would go into medicine.”

She traveled abroad for about a year, living in Lusaka, Zambia, where she worked at an HIV counseling and testing site. The experience was life changing. “Every day was like a thousand years in one day. We did tons of troubleshooting. There were lots of life-and-death issues. It was very challenging, but rewarding.” 

And it set her on a new path toward public health. 

After her return to the U.S., she moved to Ann Arbor, where she received a master’s degree in public health from the University of Michigan. She then returned to California for a state health department position in Sacramento.

Not long after, she moved again, to Baltimore, and earned a Ph.D. from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. That’s where she met her husband, Ryan Coller, now a physician at American Family Children’s Hospital. “We met socially, salsa dancing,” she laughed. Ryan is a Green Bay native who had received an undergraduate degree from UW-Madison — hence the Wisconsin tie. They married in 2007.

After Baltimore, the couple returned to Los Angeles, where she joined the research faculty in the department of medicine at UCLA. But after four years, she yearned to do something more practical. “I wanted to see an impact sooner than what you see in academia,” she admitted. “I felt a little detached from the actual programs, even though I was researching them.” She found Centro Hispano through an online search and applied for the executive director position. 

Just a month into her job, Menendez Coller, 38, makes interesting comparisons between Los Angeles’ Latino community and Madison’s. “In L.A., most Latinos are American-born,” she says, meaning immigration challenges are less of an issue than they are here. “Many families have been there a long time and didn’t have any support when they came, so they’re [dealing] with a lot now — gang issues, etc.

“Here, the immigrants are so new and hopeful! In L.A., there seems to be a lot of disappointment.”

“In Madison, ESL [English as a second language] and dual-immersion programs are more important. Gangs are present, but not overwhelming. [Centro Hispano] can be a hub for services, or we can link them to providers who can help them.” 

One of her first goals is strengthening Centro Hispano’s adult services and getting more families involved with the center. “We do good work, but we need to do more of it.”



Funding is always an issue. She dreams of receiving what she termed “a great grant” from the likes of the Institutes of Health or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation — larger and longer grants “to give us some breathing room.” Such a windfall would alleviate financial pressure and allow Centro Hispano to grow staff and gain more support. “That would be really nice,” she said. 

She’d also like to collaborate more with other local agencies. “If we submit proposals together, we can be a lot stronger. There’s a lot of duplication out there.”

Her personal struggle is acknowledging that effecting change happens more slowly than she’d like. “Everything takes time,” she says.

Menendez Coller has been impressed with the community leaders she’s met since her arrival, saying they’ve been welcoming and anxious to work together. “They’re coming to us with ideas. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done.” She’ll be laying out Centro’s strategic plan over the next six months.

A born problem-solver, she also welcomes community input. “We’re really excited to have people visit, meet us, and see what we have to offer,” she said. “We’re open to ideas and interested in collaboration.” 

Just contact her at Karen@micentro.org.

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