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Executive Director Jaime Jaramillo of Centro de Servicios is photographed in the organization's thrift shop on Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013 in Union City, Calif. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)

UNION CITY -- Just about every weekday morning, Jaime Jaramillo works in a cramped office in a converted 1940s Decoto district house, where he runs the Centro de Servicios Resource Center and Thrift Shop, a charity serving low-income residents at no cost.

It's a distinctly unglamorous job in a modest location, but Jaramillo, 67, says he wouldn't have it any other way.

"Nonprofit means exactly that, it doesn't pay much, but I've found my life mission," he said. "It's not the money that drives this job, it's the passion."

And Jaramillo's passion is for helping anyone, from any walk of life, who has a problem.

"The rewards I get from giving people a little bit of hope, giving them a little light at the end of the tunnel," he said, "that's a good feeling."

Centro's many free services include providing food, clothing and housing for those in dire need of life's basic essentials. The charity also helps with job referrals, adult literacy, immigration issues, health care access and the holding of breast cancer support groups for Spanish-speaking women. Volunteer attorneys offer free assistance for a variety of legal issues, including family law, tenant-landlord disputes, immigration and criminal charges.

Centro also has a thrift shop, where funds are raised by selling clothing, kitchenware and books at bargain prices.

"Every night, I go home and thank God I have a pillow, blanket and bed," Jaramillo said, "because some people have nothing."

Jaramillo, who worked as an Alameda County probation officer for 23 years, joined Centro's board of directors not long after the charity opened in 1974. He switched careers in 1996, becoming the organization's executive director.

Today, it has five full-time employees and about 20 volunteers who serve around 12,000 people each year. Many of its clients live in the Tri-City area, but all Bay Area residents are welcome, Jaramillo said.

"We serve anyone who comes through that door," he said.

Tony Acosta, Union City's deputy city manager, said Centro's facilities are small but that doesn't stop the charity from delivering aid to a large number of people.

"For Jaime, it's a calling," he said. "He hears a lot of dire tales of woe from a lot of people and he feels a responsibility to help them all. That's a difficult emotional position to be in every day, yet he soldiers on."

The majority of Centro's $210,000 annual operating budget is funded by the city, Acosta said. This year, Alameda County Supervisor Richard Valle, a longtime Decoto district resident, donated $30,000 to help keep the charity running, city officials said.

Union City owns the charity's office and thrift store, providing the buildings at no cost.

"Without the city's free rent, we could not serve this community," Jaramillo said.

Centro's services are worth every penny, Acosta said, because they help reduce crime and gang violence.

"Behind every violent young man or woman is a dysfunctional family and terrible economics," he said. "As a result, the gang becomes their family and they make their money through crime. So, if you're able to stabilize a family, you've cut the gang recruiting."

Union City Mayor Carol Dutra-Vernaci said Jara millo is an invaluable part of the community.

"Jaime is, in a word, fantastic, and he's such an asset to the city" she said. "He's not on the job just 9 to 5. He lives Centro."

Jaramillo was born in Colombia and immigrated to the U.S. in the early 1960s. While serving in the Army during the Vietnam War, he was stationed at Fort Ord, near Monterey, in 1968. That is when he met his wife, Carmen, at a dance at Our Lady of the Rosary Church, just a few blocks from where he now works. Carmen -- and the Decoto district -- have been central in Jaramillo's life ever since. The couple live in Fremont, a short drive from Centro's office.

They have three grown children and seven grandchildren, and being a grandparent has shaped Jaramillo's compassionate view of the world.

"In this job, you touch a lot of lives," he said. "I often think about my children and grandchildren, and if they're ever in the same situation, I would want someone to help them."

At an age when most people have long been retired, Jaramillo said he envisions continuing his life's mission for years. "I'll probably be working in this office one day with a walker," he said, chuckling softly.

That would be just fine with Union City leaders such as Acosta, who said he cannot imagine Centro being run by anyone else.

"That would prove to be difficult because you would have to find another Jaime Jaramillo," Acosta said. "And there aren't too many of those around."

Contact Chris De Benedetti at 510-353-7011. Follow him at Twitter.com/cdebenedetti.

NAME: Jaime Jaramillo
AGE: 67
HOMETOWN: Fremont
CLAIM TO FAME: Since 1996, he has led Centro de Servicios Resource Center and Thrift Shop, a Union City charity that offers free social services to thousands of low-income East Bay residents.
QUOTE: "The rewards I get from giving people a little bit of hope, giving them a little light at the end of the tunnel, that's a good feeling."

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