My Pontiac Story: Sonia Acosta of Centro Multicultural La Familia

 Ever since a young age, Sonia Acosta has enjoyed helping people live happier, healthier lives, first in Mexico and now in Pontiac, where she's the president and CEO of Centro Multicultural La Familia, a non-profit that takes a holistic approach to assisting the community with social support services.

Sonia Acosta. "It's satisfying to help others have access to things like health equity and equal opportunity to advancing their lives," says Acosta. "We want all children to do well at school so they can be happy and productive members of society. We want them to say, 'Yes, I can do this just like anybody else.'"

Sonia Acosta got her bachelor's degree in psychology in Mexico. She'd then be awarded a scholarship from the Rotary International Foundation, bringing her to Western Michigan University for her masters in psychology. She'd also receive her Ph.D. in psychology from WMU. She got married at that time, and had her daughter here, too.

When Acosta joined Centro in 1992, the agency focused solely on mental health treatment. Under her leadership, Centro has expanded services to cover a wide range of issues, including health and wellness assistance, citizenship education, and English as Second Language classes. Centro also helps other agencies engage with Pontiac's Latino community, improving residents' access to additional services.

In 2007, Acosta helped split off Centro into an independent non-profit. Today, Centro is offering more services to more people. Acosta believes her role with the non-profit is to develop programs based on the feedback she receives from the community, to respond to people's experiences.

"There's been an increase in immigrants feeling unwelcome, these past few months. We're working to help reduce those levels of anxiety and help children feel safer here. We want people to go beyond prejudice, and not be so quick to judge," says Acosta.

"That's what motivates me."

Metromode asked Sonia Acosta more about her motivations and her Pontiac.

Q: What do you love most about Pontiac?

This was the first city I came to where I found a job that I love and continue to love. It allows me to work with people of different backgrounds that are very interested in making Pontiac the Pontiac that they knew before. I got here in 1992, but I understand from talking to people that it was a very prosperous city and I feel that we're moving in the right direction. I've participated in events with the mayor and faith-based leaders, the nearby universities, the Pontiac Business Association; they're all interested in making Pontiac a better place to be. We're one of the oldest tenants in the Riker Building, and I've always felt very safe here. With all the restaurants opening and the music, food, and culture happening--it's the right place to be.

Q: Why did you move to Pontiac and why do you stay?

This is the city where my job is and the people we serve live here. I think it's a great place to be from. Lakes and parks surround us, and there are lots of great businesses in the area. To me, it's surprising that there are not more businesses here because of the geographic area that we're in, all these natural resources, the people that love this city. For all the businesses that have moved away, others are coming back because they see the potential here.

Q: What's Pontiac's biggest challenge and how do you think it can be addressed?

I feel that some people that have been here for a long time have become complacent. There's still a lot of disagreement between people because they're focusing on their own interests and that's what stops progress. People don't get along because they're not focusing on our common goals. But I assume that happens everywhere. Bureaucracy, red tape are things I've never liked. At Centro, we're working to remove that. What we can do is at the community level, try to be there and offer solutions, give input, and make some changes. We're not on a political level but a community level and focus on a healthier and happier Pontiac.

Q: What are your hopes for the city?

That it continues going in the right direction. Here, when a business opens, you feel more support for the small business owners. People are meeting about concerns, especially in the downtown area. The building we're in, the new owner is making a lot of improvements, and you can see it help the economy. I want to see more of that happening. The work with schools, the police department and its relationship to the community--there has been a lot of that happening and hope it continues to happen. I hope people put aside competing interests for the benefit of the city. There's a lot of potential and no reason it shouldn't be that way.

Q: What should people in metro Detroit know about Pontiac?

That Pontiac is in a renewal state where it welcomes people from all over the state and beyond so they can come and be a part of the rebirth of the city. And that we see the changes that cause prosperity, not only financially but where people feel more connected. We don't want to be an island. We want to be a place where people from other places come and take part in cultural events. The mayor seems concerned about all the residents, regardless of their backgrounds, and listens to the needs of the community. Those who used to be down on Pontiac are now promoting it to their friends. You can come here, have fun, and engage with all the different activities happening.

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MJ Galbraith is a writer and musician living in Detroit. Follow him on Twitter @mikegalbraith.