You might think of Centro de la Familia (the Family Center) as an octopus with tentacles reaching into the deepest corners of the Hispanic community, but that image may scare the kiddies.

Better to see the center as a hand with fingers extended, stretching to grab hold of Utah Hispanics who need a lift.And in the palm of that hand put Manuel Romero, CEO of the operation.

"In April we'll celebrate 21 years as an organization," says Romero. "In that time we've been able to establish a real network with Hispanic families. We've had a lot of success. And we've grown. Today we have a volunteer board of 15, we have three divisions and we work with the mayor's office on several projects."

Just the existence of such an effort will be news to many Utahns. But Utah's Hispanics are well aware of CDLF and its corps of professionals and volunteers. The original nonprofit program was cobbled together out of frustration in 1974 by several Hispanic heavy hitters: John Florez, Linda Quintana, Robert Archuleta, Orlando Rivera and Eugene Garcia among them. Quintana remembers the feelings.

"Those were exciting times," she says. "At last we were experiencing a measure of self-determination. We wanted to serve the community in a meaningful way."

Soon El Centro linked up with state government. Today it has grown to the point that the flow chart of personnel resembles the organizational chart of a small county. The "fingers" of the helping hand even reach into Arizona.

Here's a look at some of CDLF's concerns, through the eyes of its field directors. Each program bears the stamp of a unique personality:

OLGA

It's Tuesday, 5:30 p.m., and Oscar Molina is moving around the classroom like a faithful night watchman. In one corner a mother works with her daughter on a high school math assignment. Another mother-daughter duo admires some artwork. "Nuevo Dia" (New Day) plays matchmaker for female family members who've been out of touch with each other.

"The program is so successful that some fathers want to be included now," says Romero. "But our grant was written for mothers and daughters only and we have to follow guidelines. In the future we'll try to expand."

Olga de La Cruz-Canon runs "Nuevo Dia" as well as two other prevention programs. A native of Texas who grew up in Chicago, she brings a valuable past and a sense of the future to her task.

"When I first came to Utah I hit culture shock," she says. "But I began working on my master's at the University of Utah, and my parents now live here. And since I'm very family-oriented I feel at home now."

Other parts of Olga's domain include a program for home-based counseling and the popular Hispanic Youth Leadership Institute. Twenty schools now offer HYLI. Last year Hollywood actor James Edwards Olmos came to town to deliver a rousing motivational speech to HYLI kids.

"Because of our mother-and-daughter nights in `Nuevo Dia,' several mothers are looking to go back to school themselves," says De La Cruz-Canon. "I see a lot of self-esteem growing here. When I was young, my parents were very much on top of things, so I didn't have the problems some kids have today. But I understand the kids. I know what they're feeling. I began as a volunteer yet even now that I'm on staff I find the best reward for my work is never monetary."

Molina serves as a guide and mentor for the girls.

"We have a mother and daughter who began the program very distant from each other," he says. "But now they're closer and the girl is finally getting good grades. That's why I do this."

There are failures, of course. Sometimes even the best intentions backfire. But no one in a family services career can afford to focus on the negative. And "Nuevo Dia" has produced enough success stories to keep mothers and daughters coming back and keep the emotional tanks filled for the leadership.

BRIAN

"Not all our staff is Latino," says Romero. "In fact, we probably have the most diverse staff I've ever seen."

"Exhibit A" of that diversity may be Brian Currie, a former Weber State University student and family counselor who now directs the center's two clinical programs.

Laid-back and friendly, Currie greets the troubled kids who visit his office in Spanish slang and the warm, open manner that they find in their own community.

"Half of the people we deal with speak only Spanish," Currie says, "and it's important to communicate. It's all you have."

"Esperanza Para Manana" (Hope for Tomorrow) is a foster-care program, and its sister operation, "Proyecto Salud" (Project Health), works with mental health patients.

"Project Health" has engaged 250 troubled youths over the years. Currently 10 are in the program.

"Esperanza" is more extensive, operating proctor homes from Salt Lake City to Sanpete County.

"Our goal is to get the kids out of the destructive environment and try to offer them a new beginning," says Currie.

The mental health program works on a sliding scale. Currie claims the facility has the best prices available.

"We had a girl in the foster-care program not long ago with multiple problems," says Currie. "I had no idea what was going to happen to her. She had a gang history, a drug history. She went home in October and we've been keeping tabs on her. She's done very well."

JOSE

If you call Centro de la Familia and ask for Jose E. Martinez, you may be told he's "in the field." It's not a dodge. As director of the Migrant Headstart Program of CDLF, Martinez is often literally in the field, up to his knees in farm workers.

"Right now there are eight migrant centers in Utah and four in Arizona," says Romero. "Migrant workers today seldom travel with their families. Some are just seasonal workers with other jobs the rest of the year. There is still a significant number of migrants working the turkey farms and greenhouses."

With spring arriving and the farms coming out of hibernation, Jose E. Martinez could not be reached for comments.

He was "in the field."

In the end, a book could be written about all the goings-on. Chapters could feature Marc K. Hoenig, Teague Hansen and others who've worked behind the scenes over the years, crunching numbers, writing grants, answering phones and greeting newcomers.

From a distance the center looks like a far-flung enterprise. But each May they pull together for a Unity Conference. El Centro de la Familia is already gearing up for this year's celebration on May 3. Romero is looking to land a nationally prominent Hispanic voice to keynote the festivities.

That conference, in fact, is one time the fingers of the helping hand are brought together - for a few days - in a tight ball of solidarity and strength.

Centro de la Familia de Utah is located at 205 W. 700 South, Suite 301, Salt Lake City, UT 84101. Write for information, or phone 521-4473.