Most of Rafael and Maribel Torres’ vision to invest in people by offering workforce educational opportunities in Lebanon County is in a holding pattern.

A state budget impasse last year that remained unsettled until mid-December prevented his organization from receiving much-needed funding, which prohibited the hiring of staff and halted renovations at Tec Centro Lebanon.

A division of the WEPA Empowerment Center, Tec Centro Lebanon is modeled after the highly successful Tec Centro Lancaster, which also spawned Tec Centro York and Tec Centro Berks. 

“The idea is to grow if we want our cities to be vibrant, we want our communities to be secure,” said Torres, who co-founded the WEPA Empowerment Center along with his wife Maribel in February 2021. “We need to be able to have opportunities for growth and money is part of the equation.”

Tec Centro, located at 9 S. 9th St., Lebanon, offers employment services and recently launched a highly popular English as a Second Language (ESL) course. 

“We offer employment services for employers and job seekers, we’re doing workshops to assist individuals with resume preparation and we’re also doing financial literacy workshops, homebuyer workshops and we’ve had job fairs for employers and job seekers,” said Torres.

Twelve computer labs in this room and another eight in an adjacent space will provide adult learners with educational opportunities in ditigal literacy at Tec Centro. (James Mentzer)

Workforce development training classes set to begin this spring are now slated to start this fall due to the funding delay.

The first workforce development training classes will be in the medical field and include certified nurse’s aide, phlebotomy technician, healthcare office assistant, and medical assistant. Dental assistant studies will eventually be added to the allied health program.

With state funding expected to arrive soon, renovations to the 108-year-old Elks Building in downtown Lebanon will be able to move forward and staff hired to teach the adult-ed classes. The allied health program will be staffed by instructors from Harrisburg Area Community College, Torres said.  

To help generate additional money to fund renovations, hire staff and address the long student waiting list (300 people, of whom 152 are for the ESL class), the center is conducting a $2 million capital fundraiser campaign

“We are hosting a fundraising event in October,” Torres added.

Other workforce development programs to be provided in the future include GED prep, culinary arts, and financial and digital literacy. Two computer classrooms – with 12 computers in one room and eight in an adjacent area – will be among the first training sessions to be offered.

This portion of the former ballroom at the Elks Club in downtown Lebanon will be renovated for a culinary arts program at Tec Centro, which is part of the workforce investment program known as WEPA. The window shown here, which dates back to the 1950s-60s will remain in the room now known as Community Hall. (James Mentzer)

“We had to use one of our classrooms to move furniture and donated items to free up the space for the allied health training renovations,” said Torres. “So it’s been a challenge due to a lack of space and the need to renovate space. Once these allied health suite classrooms get renovated and opened in September, then you’ll see those GED prep and other classes we have lined up start.”

The computer labs are on the second floor of the former Elks building, near the old ballroom. Known as Community Hall, a portion of the 5,500-square-foot ballroom will be renovated in one corner near an existing kitchen to accommodate culinary arts classes.

A majority of the adult classes are equipped to serve between eight to 12 students per session, noted Torres. 

Most of the space at Community Hall will remain unchanged so it can host cultural arts programs and community-based events like the upcoming Community of Lebanon Association’s business mixer and WEPA’s graduation ceremonies for students, their families and friends.

“Our plan is to open that space to the arts, music and other cultural programs,” said Torres. “There’s a need for this kind of space in Lebanon and this an opportunity to meet that need.”

The former Legends Cafe, which was located to the rear of the building and is adjacent to WEPA’s administrative offices on the first floor, will house the allied health programs following renovation. That space is currently gutted and, Torres noted, renovations will resume as soon as the state funding is received and contractor contracts are signed.

The basement, which had a bar and a four-lane bowling alley, is also gutted and the alley’s hardwood floor is being repurposed. “The floor is being made into a large conference room table,” he said. “This was a social club and they had bars on all of the floors.”

WEPA board member John Tice, left, and WEPA co-founder Rafael Torres stand in front of the basement bar in the former Elks building in Lebanon. The basement of Tec Centro will be renovated to provide classroom and instructional space and this bar will be converted into a coffee bar. (James Mentzer)

The basement bar, which sits in one corner in proximity to the former bowling alley, will be converted into a coffee bar and the balance of the floor space renovated into instructional areas and classrooms.

Torres said WEPA is a collaboration that was made possible, in part, by a $1 million Community Project Funding grant secured by Congressman Dan Meuser (R-9), $750,000 provided by Lebanon County Commissioners in March 2022 through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA) to purchase the building and private donations.

Read More: 11 projects funded, Lebanon County seeks to spend remaining ARPA dollars

ARPA is a federally funded program that was launched to support communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Lebanon County’s portion of the more than $1 trillion released by the federal government is nearly $26.1 million. As of April 1, WEPA was one of 11 expenditures made by the county with ARPA funds.

“Ours is a collaborative model and we have to do whatever it takes to build our communities, invest in our people,” said Torres.

Still, more needs to be done to make Torres’ vision a reality.

He encourages the business community to become involved in their efforts to build a stronger Lebanon Valley workforce. Tec Centro’s core services provide workforce education and skills training to unemployed and underemployed clients, help meet local employment demands and work to lift families out of poverty. 

“I would encourage the business community and potential donors to come see us,” said Torres. “We want to be a beacon of light for people.”

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James Mentzer is a freelance writer whose published works include the books Pennsylvania Manufacturing: Alive and Well; Bucks County: A Snapshot in Time; United States Merchant Marine Academy: In Service to the Nation 1943-2018; A Century of Excellence: Spring Brook Country Club 1921-2021; Lancaster...


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