Creating new light: Nueva Luz opens Gordon Square office to serve a diverse community

In 1999, Max Rodas was seeing a large number of gay men dying from AIDS, and many of them were not receiving support from their families or the larger Cleveland community.

“I watched with horror,” Rodas recalls. “I was appalled so I decided to do something about it.”

So 21 years ago, Rodas quit his ministry job as pastor of Medina Church of the Nazarene and started Nueva Luz Urban Resource Center (NLURC) in Lorain, a nonprofit organization addressing the root causes of systemic poverty and health inequities. The organization grew and expanded to open a Cleveland office.

Nueva Luz opens Gordon Square officeToday, Nueva Luz has evolved into a community organization providing services to thousands of people in Cleveland and Lorain. Earlier this year the organization moved from its Cleveland location on West 89th Street in the Cudell neighborhood to the Gordon Square Arcade, 6600 Lorain Ave.

The Spanish name “Nueva Luz” translates to “New Light” in English, which comes from Rodas’ drive to illuminate a new life for those living with HIV and AIDS.

Since the beginning, NLURC has focused primarily on patients struggling with HIV and AIDS diagnoses, and hospitals directly refer patients to Nueva Luz for assistance. But the needs of the organization's clientele have expanded over time, so Rodas' services have grown too. 

Over the past two decades Nueva Luz has continuously worked to remove language, race, and poverty barriers that often exist with the people who walk through the door.

The organization serves its clients in five broad categories: case management, housing services, legal clinics, nutritional needs, and pharmacy access.

Being a Latinx man himself, when Rodas founded Nueva Luz he assumed most of his clientele would also be Latinx. “I just had this gut feeling we were going to attract Latinos and Latinas,” Rodas says.

That has changed. Today Nueva Luz' clientele is 64% Black, 18% Latinx, and 18% white. Rodas describes the growth as happening organically. “We are committed to serve whoever needs our work,” he says.

Rodas makes sure his staff mirrors the diverse client base. The staff can collectively speak more than five different languages—ranging from Spanish to Swahili—and Rodas routinely trains the staff to keep up with an ever-changing social climate.

For instance, Rodas recently trained his staff on working with the LGBT+ community and how to use correct pronouns within that community.

When clients first come to NLURC they go through two-hour assessments with case managers, who then suggest what services might be beneficial to that client.

Some of the services case managers can help with include writing grants to obtain and maintain housing, finding legal representation for cases of discrimination, and receiving prescriptions through NLURC’s partnership with CNN Pharmacies.

While some services have changed because of COVID-19 restrictions with in-person events, Nueva Luz developed new ways to provide similar services. For instance, NLURC has a food pantry, but it’s closed due to the coronavirus. Instead, employees deliver food bags to those in need.

Since walk-in appointments aren’t currently available, case managers still work with new and existing clients through virtual appointments. And with the help of community partners the Cuyahoga County Board of Health and MetroHealth, NLURC was able to provide free COVID-19 testing in September.

This past year the organization has provided services to more than 1,000 people—more than 600 of whom receive help with housing and nutritional needs, while about 250 people receive legal counseling, Rodas says.

In previous years NLURC has hosted fundraising events such as block parties with live music, toy drives, and toiletry drives. Everything donated goes to help people with HIV or AIDS. Such events were not doable this year.

On June 3, amidst the pandemic, Nueva Luz was able to open its Gordon Square office in addition to the Lorain office. Opening another office allows the organization to be more accessible to their clients.

The new office was made possible by a partnership with the Detroit Shoreway Community Development Organization (DSCDO), which helped NLURC find the space. According Rodas, the new office is about four times larger than the Lorain office and was needed to accommodate their growing clientele.

The new space allows the organization to assist more people while maintaining confidentiality and give each of their employees their own office spaces for case management.

Upon entering the center, the new space looks like a typical storefront, however when clients travel downstairs via a metal staircase, it opens into a large basement with offices and a quiet, relaxing room. Rodas calls this the ‘Zen room.’

Rodas takes pride in providing services to this niched community. He has previously served as a Cleveland commissioner for former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland and on the Ohio Latino Affairs Commission under former Ohio Governor John Kasich.

Nationally, Rodas represents Ohio on the National Latino Evangelical Coalition (NALEC). In 2010, Rodas and his wife Kim, who serves as the chief operations officer for NLURC, were invited to the White House by former President Barack Obama. They were recognized for their commitment to health disparities and dedication to helping those with HIV and AIDS.

“I’m one of those really lucky guys that gets paid to do what he loves to do,” Rodas says.

Read more articles by Jylian Herring.

Jylian Herring is a current journalism student at Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism. She has previously worked with two student-run campus magazines and is also a member of Alpha Xi Delta sorority. She enjoys writing about topics such as social justice and locally owned businesses. When Jylian isn't giving her time to one of her student organizations, she likes to listen to podcasts and try new restaurants.