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Leading the Latino Commission: Debra Camarillo started with rehab work, nonprofit’s expanding mission
May 03, 2014, 05:00 AM By Angela Swartz Daily Journal

Debra Camarillo

Helping restore struggling Latinos’ lives in an environment of love and understanding was the mission of The Latino Commission when it was formed in the early 1990s and its current executive director Debra Camarillo has helped support that mission for more than 22 years.

Camarillo, 57, first became involved in wanting to help struggling individuals, especially with substance abuse, through her own personal journey, which involved abuse of substances.

“My parents had moved up to the Bay Area in the early ’90s,” said Camarillo, who was raised in Southern California. “I was part of a recovery group of residents in San Mateo County that were meeting and that group was the impetuous of the Latino Commission.”

A group of residents got together because there weren’t bilingual jail alternative programs in the county and they sought to change that. The group, based out of South San Francisco, had its first residential substance use program in 1991 through county funds. It now operates licensed facilities in San Mateo, San Francisco and Tulare counties providing residential and outpatient substance abuse treatment for men, women and young pregnant women; transitional sober living environment for both men and women; a health education and prevention programs for teenagers; case management; safety net services and public awareness.

“The message we give to clients is no different to staff, board and what we want to represent in the community,” said Camarillo, who has a master’s in theology from Vanguard University in Southern California. “We operate with traditional values of Latino community and culture. We’re operated under the premise of wellness and balance. If we practice balance in the area of the community, then wellness comes. That’s what we try to promote within the community. Part of being out of balance is if you’re stressed, you try to find relief in drugs and alcohol.”

Latinos are facing many challenges today, Camarillo said.

“Immigration is a challenge that has always been a great struggle for Latinos for a number of reasons,” she said. “Splitting of families of having undocumented status — there’s a daily stress that comes with that. The uncertainty of ‘I don’t know when I come home if my parents are going to be there.’”

Poverty is another landmark issue with which to contend, along with being overrepresented in criminal justice system, she said. Many of those cases are related to substance abuse, she said.

“The state goes to the most extensive way of dealing with these situations — incarceration,” she said. “It could be dealt within the community with substance abuse counseling.”

Initially, the target community was Latinos, but now the group attracts every race and ethnicity, she said.

“We’re very multicultural,” she said.

Camarillo, who began as the executive director in 2004, splits her time between the Central Valley and Hayward since not she helps out with programming down south as well. In her spare time, she enjoys salsa dancing and working with leather, along with traveling and spending time with her four dogs.

One of the biggest challenges for the group is finances, she said. The organization operates on an annual $2.3 million budget.

“We always have to justify why this works,” she said. “If you’re a community organization, then you don’t have the financial means to go through the systems that bring evidence-based practices. It’s always been a challenge to validate a community-based organization.”

Despite the challenges, Camarillo said she loves her job since she gets to see the rewards of the work she does and she considers it to be an honor to be able to impact her community.

“It’s an honor to serve our community,” she said. “It’s a privilege to be able to see people come off the street reminding me that we have to do what we do. I see people clean and sober today that are becoming accomplished professionals.”

There are some changes on the way for the organization. It plans to expand to its Bay Area programming with youth services like pregnancy prevention and promoting higher education.

For more information visit

(650) 344-5200 ext. 105



Tags: community, camarillo, group, substance, abuse, organization,

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