Outstanding HA Volunteers
José Eduardo Morales-Martinez
Born in Mexico City, Mexico, José and his two siblings grew up traveling with his dad’s circus watching him perform as an animal tamer, acrobat, and clown. After family members, who were living in Greenville, mentioned how ideal the community was to raise children, José immigrated with his mother to the Greenville community. Regardless of leaving Mexico at a young age, José is passionate about his Mexican heritage, reading the history of his people, and honoring their resilient ability to make “something out of nothing.”
As a young student, he always had adults and mentors who believed in him, including neighbors and teachers. He became a first-generation high school and college graduate. Now after earning a Bachelors of Science from Furman University, José aspires to motivate others, especially children, to pursue healthier lifestyles that focus on all spectrums of wellness. He seeks to promote healthier initiatives, motivate others towards a healthy future, and lessen the influence of habits that increase chronic diseases.
Everything about José is full of confidence and a sense that he belongs right where he is. It’s surprising to know that, because of his DACA status, his future path in the US is far from certain. Perhaps this contrast is explained by his attitude about the situation:
My DACA status is just another label…Am I Mexican because it’s on a piece of paper or because I am proud of it and try to live up to it? Am I Student Support Specialist because it is my job title or because I encourage my students to work hard in school and in life to make their lives incredible. I am proud to be DACA, it fuels me to show others, “HECK YEA I can do it, do anything I put my mind into great, and let me show you I can!
Just like the resilient spirit of his ancestors, José proudly carried this perseverance into the US, and now into his future. He believes that contributing to his community is in doing “small stuff” – translating for new English speakers, cooking for friends, reading to children, and being visible in the community. DACA doesn’t seem to figure into his equation, or subtract from what he and his peers can accomplish.
I believe we cannot wait to be given a chance. We have to make those opportunities to contribute…Waiting for someone to give us the permission to contribute will delay the impact we can make already. Small movements fuel big changes.
Sarai is a young woman who is well acquainted with facing the struggles of life head on, and shining brightly regardless of real setbacks. Her authentic personality and openness have made her an ideal advocate and speaker on many social issues, including DACA rights, and women’s issues. Her most inspiring moment was speaking at the latest Women’s March in Greenville. She is destined to create a meaningful impact in our community, just by being herself, and helping others to do the same.
Sarai is from Canoa, Puebla, a town of about 14,000 inhabitants. This small village in central Mexico is infamous for the 1968 lynching deaths of five young hikers thought to be communists - an oppressive reputation for a hometown. Sarai grew up in Canoa and when she was 11 years old, her mother brought her to the US.
“At the time I didn’t understand how life changing my mother’s decision was going to be. I only knew that wherever my mother went, I was going to go also. Looking back at the circumstances, it is clear to me that there wasn’t one simple reason. - lack of familial support, economic stability, physical safety, better education, and emotional stability were all in the mix of propelling my mother to go into the unknown with her children.”
Sarai ended up in Upstate South Carolina because the family followed people they knew from their hometown who were already in Pickens County. She is adamant that her family made the best decision in her favor by bringing her to the US, despite the rapid changes to immigration policy that can alarm and destabilize DACA recipients.
Sarai reflects that, “The clearest most advantageous thing that has happened to me in the US is that, through DACA, I am more easily able to access and afford mental health care. I started addressing mental health in my life about three years ago. Striving for higher education, collaborating with volunteers, and freely sharing my experiences would not be possible without the mental health care I have sought. Living in the US has opened my family and I to a broader perspective to what living healthy means. I don’t know that we would have grown in this way had we remained in the town that I grew up in.”
Sarai strives for balance between the many positive and negative forces acting on her life. She is pursuing an Associate’s degree at Tri-County Technical college, but has reduced her class schedule because she must also work to support her education. It is a lot to juggle and she has needed to delay her graduation date, but she plans to pursue higher education for as long as she can.
When asked what her life might have been like if she had remained in Mexico, she asserts, “I cannot guess what kind of job or how many children I would have if I had never left Mexico. However, I can safely say that growing up in the U.S. has allowed me to think for myself. The United States has taught me that I have a choice. Anything from choosing to follow cultural expectations to choosing to exceed the expectations of negative labels that I didn’t get to choose - this is my American freedom and identity. Wherever I get, or don’t get, deported to, this will remain with me.
As an active advocate for the rights and opportunities of DACA recipients, she has never been one to gloss over difficult truths. Her status has forced her to imagine herself, and her future beyond her current circumstances, and even her current country of residence. Considering this, her attitude towards being a “DACA Student” is interesting - “I am deeply grateful to be have DACA status. The limitations are frustrating but they proved to be a validation that I needed from my government. I am here, I live here, and I matter.”
What does Hispanic Heritage mean to Sarai, whose life has been clearly split in half by her time in two counties?
“Hispanic heritage to me, means accepting the ambiguity of your identity. I am Mexican and American at the same time. I have experienced both, and both will be with me always. Secondly, I was born in Mexico, but hispanic heritage to me, means that regardless of where you were born you can approach me, you can talk to me in Spanish, and that you can count on me.
Finally, we asked Sarai to predict the future. What would happen if she and others like her were given the right to contribute fully to our American society?
“If DACA recipients were freely given the chance to contribute to the United State they would lead fearlessly. Many already are, but many are also afraid and with reason. This is the time for allies to speak up for the well being of their communities. A competitive flourishing economy and unity among cultures can be spurred by accessing the potential of DACA recipients. DACA recipients are a hybrid generation that understands the intricacies of cultural differences, and can step in to unite them.”
The Hispanic Alliance honors Sarai Bautista as a woman who has stepped up to speak and lead fearlessly, and who works to unite the many complex cultural groups created through immigration. We believe that her life and work show why immigration is a beautiful part of Hispanic and American Heritage to honor and maintain for the future.
What type of person is a first-generation immigrant, a business owner, an advocate with federal legislators, and a future insurance agent all by the age of 21 – a DACA recipient, of course! Meet Eloisa Santiago, born in Veracruz, Mexico. As a young child, her parents were concerned for the rising rate of crime and corruption in the area and wanted a safe future for their family. Her father went ahead of the family to find work in Greenwood, SC, bringing Eloisa and her mother to the states when she was just two. At five her family moved to Cross Hill, a tiny rural village with one red light. She has very fond memories of her tight-knit community at school in Clinton, which she insists is pronounced “Clin’in, no ‘T.’” “Our school was a mix of black and white, and had maybe ten Hispanic students. Whenever something happened in our community everyone would support each other. I never felt out of place.”
In high school, Eloisa was a cheerleader, coached cheerleading, and was sophomore student body president. It was her gratitude and awareness of her parent’s hard work and sacrifices that motivated her. However, during this time she also began to understand how being born in Mexico made her different from her peers. She was initially barred from attaining a driver’s permit, but then the DACA program was introduced allowing her to earn a license along with her other friends.
Eloisa was accepted to the College of Charleston, having already studied Chinese for her international business degree. She was a recipient of the AHAM (Association of Hispanic-American Women) scholarship but had waited for some time to hear from her school about financial aid. As her Freshman year arrived, she traveled to orientation with her entire family, visited her new dorm room, and finally got word from financial aid – not only was no state assistance available, but as a DACA student, she would be charged out-of-state tuition.
“I remember the spot we were sitting with my whole family as I broke into tears. I knew I had to withdraw from the college - there was no way my family could afford that. I couldn’t do that my family after all they had already sacrificed. I cried the whole way home from Charleston. I enrolled in Piedmont tech that Friday, and Monday I started classes - that changed me.”
With all her hopes and expectations vanishing in front of her, Eloisa fell into depression, having had no desire to socialize or do anything but attend class, come home, and sleep. “It hurt so bad!” Her father was deeply concerned for her wellbeing, and suggested a “project” to help her move forward and regain her confidence. They would open a car dealership. Feeling that she had nothing to lose, Eloisa agreed. Slowly, the new project and a renewed trust in her faith began to help her move on from her loss. When a family financial crisis threatened her education for the second time, her professors banded together, and helped her apply for La Puerta Esperanza (The Door of Hope) Scholarship, so she could finish her degree. On her 19th birthday, she and her father bought their first car and opened “C.V. (Cristo Vivé) Auto Sales,” in honor of their faith.
Eloisa continued to go to school, and manage the dealership at the same time. In fact, the entire dealership was in her name, since her DACA status afforded her more rights than her father. She would handle administration, marketing, and sales, and her father managed mechanics and purchasing. “I am an old person in a 20-year-old’s body,” she quips. “I matured faster than I expected, but I am happy with where I am.” In December of 2017, Eloisa graduated with a degree in Business Administration from Piedmont Tech.
It would not be surprising for Eloisa to have mixed feelings about her DACA status, considering the burdens and opportunities it has created. As in many immigrant families, members with DACA are a strange hybrid of statehoods: her younger sister is a US citizen, and her eldest sister, who came to the US separate from Eloisa, is unable to qualify for DACA. Yet she consistently focuses on the bright spots of her situation. Last year, she was interviewed by CBS for a story on DACA broadcast throughout the Carolinas. One unexpected opportunity was the visibility this story gained her within her professional organization, the Carolinas Independent Automobile Dealers Association (CIADA). Dominated by white men, they were surprised to find a young Latina DACA recipient in their membership. Not only was there an outpouring of mentorship offers, she was sent to Washington, D.C. as an emissary of their association to speak with federal lawmakers about DACA policies. Her message there was simple: “I want to travel to Mexico and see my family. I want to be seen as a resident because I own a business and pay taxes. I want a permanent solution.” The trip was an amazing experience for her. While she grew more confident that a legislative solution could be found, she also says that she gained insight into the way that the issue of DACA was used politically to accomplish other goals.
With great achievements under her belt, Eloisa did not sit still for long. Through her work at her dealership, she understood that the Hispanic community had a great need for information and resources about insurance. At just the right time, Matt Davis, a State Farm Agent in Clinton, was looking for a bicultural agent to reach the Hispanic community. With this partnership, Eloisa was able to open up another line of work for herself and connect with the needs of the community. She is running her business full time, and working on her insurance license with plans to join Matt’s team in Clinton.
To Eloisa, her Hispanic heritage means never forgetting where she comes from. Having left Mexico so young, her understanding of being Mexican comes through her parents – eating authentic Mexican food every night, appreciation for family, and an undying dream for the future. In addition to these gifts, she believes the DACA recipients in particular can strengthen America through hard work, perseverance and incredible gratitude. “We’re not people who like to give up easily. We don’t take our chances lightly – we take full advantage. I am so grateful for this country and our opportunities - I don’t imagine another life.” Eloisa claims that everyone with DACA has people behind them to whom they are grateful – parents, family, mentors, those who offer opportunities – and organizations like CIADA, AHAM, and Hispanic Alliance.
“I am Mexican and I am proud of it - seeing where we are now, and where I plan to be. I have lots of goals and dreams that seem impossible, but with God and my parents, it’s possible.”
“If I could be a citizen, the first thing I would do is travel back to see my family.”
Estefany was born in Izotepec a small town in the mountains of Guerrero, Mexico, not far from Acalpuco. When she was very young, her parents moved to South Carolina to find work, so until the age of eight, Estefany was raised by her grandparents, until her parents sent for her. Her father paid a coyote as a guide, but she and her two brothers had to cross the border separately. When it was her turn, she and her middle brother were caught by the police. Little Estefany spent ten days in jail. “I remember thinking that I would never see my grandparents or parents again,” she recalls. Her second attempt to reach her parents was successful, and she began to live with them in the countryside near Pelzer, South Carolina.
Estefany felt strangely at home because the countryside was so similar to Izotepec. Learning English and going to school was a daily struggle, because there was no ESOL teacher at any of the nearby elementary schools. For an entire year she woke up very early, and took two buses, 45 minutes away, to work with a teacher that could help her. Estefany was aware of stereotyping and racial comments about Latino immigrants as she grew. The biggest complaint was that immigrant workers were taking the jobs that belonged to Americans. “It wasn’t directly said to me,” she recalls. Yet it impacted Estafany’s view of her place in society and made her concerned for her parents. “I really didn’t trust people until I knew them really well.”
Though she was adjusting and getting a good education, she and her family were completely separated from her grandparents in Izotepec. When she was 13, her Grandfather, who served as her father for her early years, passed away suddenly. Estefany remembers this as one of the most difficult and painful parts of her situation in America. She could not go back to go to his funeral, she could not comfort her grandmother – once she crossed the border, she never saw him again.
Still, her motivation to get a good education drove her forward. She went to Woodmont High School, and was admitted to Bridges to a Brighter Future. Here she received both encouragement and a reality check. She was undocumented, and would be barred from attending a public college, at least in South Carolina. Regardless of her barriers, “…everyone that worked there inspired me to do something great,” she says. “Their motto, ‘Go Forth and Do Great Things,’ stuck with me.” She continued college preparations despite her misgivings, and in 2012, in her Senior year, Estefany received an unexpected gift – the opportunity to apply for DACA. “It meant that I had an opportunity to go to college – that was the whole reason we came here. DACA was a huge victory!” she stated. The Bridges program provided parent sessions for the family to help them understand how important college was for Estefany’s future. “Applying to colleges was a really exciting moment, and my family was also excited.” As an avid soccer player, Estefany was also eligible for soccer scholarships. She was accepted to Newberry College initially, but was disappointed when the money for the soccer scholarship fell through. Instead, she decided to attend Greenville Tech for her first two years to get an Associate’s degree in Business Management. In 2014 she attended her freshman year of college as one of the first class of DACA students ever accepted at Greenville Tech.
While Estefany was living her dreams, her family remaining in Mexico was living a nightmare. “Innocent people die every day,” she said. Warring drug cartels and police corruption was increasing at an alarming rate in Izotepec. A cousin of hers was lost to the violence. It was so dangerous that people could not leave their homes to work. Estefany’s family put all of their money into hiring a lawyer to apply for a visa to get their family out of Mexico. The visa was denied. This sacrifice left the family in such a dire financial situation that Estefany withdrew from school for two years to help rebuild their losses.
Estefany endured further instability in her future, when the Trump administration began working to end the DACA program. She insists, “If DACA ends everything ends for me. Back home doesn’t offer anything.” In response she decided to reapply to Greenville Tech and finish her degree. She reasoned that if she was deported, at least she could take her education back with her. If DACA persists long enough, she plans to attend Newberry College for her final two years for a Bachelors in Business. Because she loves math, she would like to work in Accounting or Banking.
When asked about her dreams, Estephany immediately knows what matters to her: “I dream of having a good stable job and owning my own house. My dad and brother are working so they can send money back, so I want to contribute as well.” About her family left in Mexico, she says, “I believe they would be safer in the US. They will have jobs, and sustain their families.” An additional goal is to help other DACA students and give them advice. Estefany believes that DACA recipients should have an opportunity for permanent status in the US. She especially wishes for DACA students to be allowed state financial aid and tuition rates.
For now, Estefany stays centered by playing soccer, and connecting with her friends, family, and heritage. “I’ve loved soccer all my life. It’s a way to relax and get distracted from real life problems.” Her team at Copa Indoor Soccer won the finals in their league this year. She loves her mom’s cooking and the comforting sense of heritage at always having Mexican food on their table. She loves celebrating the Catholic feast of Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe with her family close to Christmas time. Being Catholic is central to her heritage and reminds her of how her grandparents would take her to mass every week as a child. Estefany explains, “My grandmother is very spiritual. Every time we talk to her on the phone she says, ‘God bless you,’ and I say, ‘You too, grandmother.”
Outstanding HA Volunteer
Though part of Catalina’s family is from the Philippines, she was born in the US and grew up in the embrace of her mother’s Colombian heritage. The formative experiences of her life have a deep impact on her sense of individuality, her pro-Hispanic mindset, and the passion that drives her to mentor young students.
Growing up in Fairfax, VA, she loved math and science, and excelled so much, that her mother was able to enroll her in CAHSEE – a summer program to help Hispanic students succeed in the STEM fields. She took college level courses taught by Hispanic teachers from across the US. She got through college on a variety of scholarships and landed a job at GE, which moved her to Greenville in 2015.
Her first experience with Hispanic Alliance was when the GE Hispanic Forum assisted Hispanic students at Carolina High with college and scholarship applications. Seeing the confidence grow in the students lit a fire still burning strong – to give Hispanic students the same information and passion for their education as she received as a child. She became a devoted volunteer with the HA Education team attending every lunch and learn for Hispanic students, and sharing her story of overcoming her barriers with support and persistence.
Her most meaningful experience at HA however, was attending the recent Families Belong Together rally, where she heard the stories from local DACA students for the first time. It was a difficult realization that they were denied the resources that she enjoyed as a citizen. Since then she has learned as much as she can from DACA students, and advocated for their right to education and career opportunities.
Catalina is now the Vice Chair of the Education Team, and as she approaches a new season of Lunch and Learn visits, she is looking for new faces, and fresh stories of how to succeed as a Hispanic professional. Her message to her peers is that they can turn a student’s life around just by sharing their journey.
For Catalina, Hispanic Heritage is a “party.” She expresses it with words like “spice,” “flavor,” “music,” and “together.” She is loud and proud about being a “Latina engineer”, and a self-described “oddball.” When she was young, her family would use any excuse to celebrate, enjoy being together, and support each other. Her dream for her Hispanic community, is to use community social gatherings as a platform to strengthen bonds, encourage collaboration, and raise the visibility and power of the Hispanic community.
Though Elisa was born in Chicago, her roots are deeply Mexican - both her parents grew up in Durango, Mexico. Elisa’s conversation is still infused with the strong, no-nonsense accent of her northern home, and she has several generations of family that still live in the city. She first saw Greenville when her father’s company moved him to Easley, SC in 1993, but it wasn’t until a decade later that she decided to make the Upstate home for herself and her daughter.
Elisa recalls that, “Being Hispanic in Upstate, SC has allowed me to get a glimpse of what my parents may have experienced in Chicago when they were young adults in the 70’s and 80’s. I felt like I went back in time when I moved here. I had to prove myself and my abilities. I had to show people that my diversity was an asset and not a roadblock. Another thing we experienced when we moved to Upstate SC was the lack of authentic food items, cultural events, resources, music, etc. We have come a long way in the past 17-24 years that I have been here.”
Elisa works in Business Development for a local credit union, where she mentors customers to improve their financial health. She provides workshops, free resources, and specialized products to empower everyone to make informed financial decisions. To hear Elisa’s passion for this area of work and community outreach, all you have to do is ask:
“Financial literacy is so very important,” she insists. “There is a great need of financial education in our Hispanic community. Banking, savings, investments and credit building are things that all individuals need to understand to set themselves up for success and reaching dreams, like higher education, home ownership and retirement. “
Elisa discovered Hispanic Alliance when she met Sara Montero-Buria, who built HA’s community engagement before she became it’s Marketing Director. Sara invited her to a Financial Stability Team meeting, and Elisa’s involvement has blossomed every since. She is a backbone member of the Financial Stability Team, volunteer-teaching many classes in Financial Literacy. Her credit union work helps our community understand this type of financial institution, which is not common in the Latin American world. This fall she will be integral to the team’s first class in Spanish for those starting a business.
Interestingly, Elisa’s most fulfilling volunteering experience was with the Education Team at their 2017 College Fair!
“I had a heart to heart conversation with a concerned parent of a high school senior who had dreams of going to Clemson to become an Architect. She attended the financial wellness workshop that I delivered, she opened up to me after the workshop.”
The mother expressed deep regret that she had not been able to save enough money for her son’s education, and was worried that, because of her, he would not be able to follow his dream. Elisa was able to convince her otherwise, and made sure that she didn’t miss the scholarship workshop with her sons. Meanwhile, she spoke to Julio Hernandez (Senior Associate Director for Hispanic Outreach at Clemson) and was able to connect mother and son with him before they left the fair. Elisa’s positive attitude in the face of challenges and her knowledge of financial resources allows her to create impact in every area where HA serves. “I was so happy that they attended the fair and were open to the resources and people available.”
Elisa is a perfect example of an American-born Latina carrying the torch of Hispanic Heritage.
“My Hispanic Heritage is me. It tells me where I come from, what my family went through to help me be where I am today, and what I teach my children so that they can continue passing it on for generations to come. I believe that our language is a major piece of our heritage, therefore I am very proud to say that I am bilingual and it is important to me that my children grasp our language as well.”
As a bilingual volunteer and financial advisor, Elisa is able to be an ambassador to our young and growing immigrant community. The effort she puts into her work, and the time she takes to inspire others through simple conversations are proof that she understands the value and potential contributions of Upstate Hispanics.
“The Hispanic community is a big contributor to the Greenville community. We work, attend school, worship, consume, and raise our children in this community. We bring value, culture, family and good work ethics to the community we live and serve in.”
And the same can be said for Elisa Lopez, herself.
One word perfectly summarizes Rut’s passion and work in the community - “la familia.” It is the central force in her Hispanic heritage and the focus of all her efforts to serve others. Rut was born in Merida, Venezuela, and was raised in Punto Fijo, five minutes from the beach and one of the largest oil refineries in the country. Her father was also born in Venezuela, and her mother moved there at a young age from Colombia. Her parents were missionaries and moved to the U.S. in 2000, when her father secured a mission in a small town in South Carolina. Rut remembers that she and her sister were called upon frequently to interpret for congregants in many situations: at the DMV, at school, and at the hospital. Initially, she herself struggled with the English, and remembers the worry and stress when she could not comprehend the words of a doctor, teacher, or official. Through this, she explains, “I developed a love and passion for helping others.”
She arrived in Greenville in 2004, to attended North Greenville University for Psychology, and began working as an interpreter at GHS language services. She combined this with coordinating after school programs at the Greenville YWCA. It was here that she met Adela Mendoza who also had an office at the Y. They had many conversations, and when Adela began to organize the Hispanic Alliance, Rut attended some of the first meetings. She had to cut back when her job as an interpreter became full-time, requiring long hours and focus. Eventually, she joined PASOS, an organization through GHS dedicated to connecting Hispanic families with health information, education, and resources.
In 2015, she found she was able to invest time as a volunteer, and returned to Hispanic Alliance as a Health Team member representing PASOS. She has been with the team ever since, using her substantial knowledge of the community to ensure that our health programs provide relevant services and information. Rut is now the Manager of the PASOS Greenville office, and was elected the Vice Chair of the Health Team in 2018. Her current professional focus for her families is Diabetes education and the importance of, and access to, primary care. She is driven by the potential to create significant impact for each family she serves, just by providing a trusting relationship and simple information.
“Our community is yearning for knowledge and education about resources to have health and long lives,” she insists. Her most important priority is advocating for adequate healthcare for families. Rut says that she has found it necessary to confront the thinking and behaviors of some doctors because of how they were taught to treat people from other countries and colors. PASOS is also responsible for a lot of cultural education for medical staff. Understanding the fear that immigrants experience when accessing health care is of paramount importance. To her this is, “Putting everything aside and looking at the person as a human being.” Rut believes that her work at PASOS creates trusting relationships with the community. As she puts it, “We’ve been in the same shoes as the families we serve.”
Though it provides valuable insight for her work, Rut’s Hispanic Heritage and life experiences give her an “outsider’s” perspective on being in the US. Though she insists that her struggles are minimal compared to many of the people she serves, she has lived through the language barrier that affected her life every day. She reflects that, “My Hispanic Heritage is a daily reminder of what being a first-generation immigrant means.”
Her most meaningful service experience at Hispanic Alliance is fresh in her mind. Just over a week ago, the Health Team executed it’s 6th Annual Health Fair, providing multiple health services, screenings, and a wealth of information for the Spanish-speaking community. Rut spoke with an enthusiastic participant, a man who kept asking, “How does this happen? Who are you guys? Why do you do this? This is amazing I can’t believe this is here in Greenville!” She was deeply touched by his enthusiasm and connected himself and his family to PASOS and to a primary care physician. With this experience she could confirm that her efforts at Hispanic Alliance were well worth it - “What we do made a difference in a family’s life.”
Again, when Rut considers the meaning and impact of her heritage, it all centers around her family. Even though she has been in the United States for 18 years and considers herself bicultural, it affects her every day. Her husband is Dominican, and her parents are living with them, so there are at least 3 cultures in the same house, along with her young son and new baby girl. Her favorite traditions center around Christmas and New Year’s. “New Year’s Eve we go crazy! In our house, fifteen minutes before midnight, everyone holds hands in a circle and each shares what they are most grateful for in the passing year, and what they want to achieve in the year to come. For the last five minutes we pray together as the new year starts.”
In her opinion, a strong family life is the greatest cultural asset that the Hispanic community adds to the broader culture. “Our general community is so individualized,” she insists, with family separating into units, sometimes far away from each other. “The strongest things that our culture brings to American culture is family unity. If someone goes to the hospital to receive difficult news, there will be five or six family members there to support them. The family is always together through good and bad times.”
We are so grateful to have Rut as part of our community and our Hispanic Alliance family. She has contributed warmth and passion to our work, and will continue to place all our Hispanic families on an upward trajectory of wellness and empowerment.
Everything about Maria Gray, her words, gestures, and even how she listens, points to a woman who lives a life of wonder, gratitude and love for others. She is known for her positivity, her faith, and her genuine concern for whoever is in front of her. Maria has gifted the Hispanic Alliance with a wealth of insight into the experiences, people, and places that have made her who she is, adding broad strokes of color to the canvas of Hispanic Heritage.
Maria was born and raised in Honduras, a land where the beach and the mountains exist back-to-back. She grew up along the coast, and credits her birth with inspiring her love for the outdoors. Her father was Spanish, and her mother of Lebanese heritage, so her personal growth began from a place of diversity. During her youth, the Honduran government had reached some amount of stability after several coups, albeit, under military rule. The country was slowly building its infrastructure and utilities on its way to a civilian government. The rapid population increase had made resources and jobs scarce. Those who lived in the city struggled against crime and unemployment, and those in the country were isolated by poor roads. Maria remembers that, “Seeing the struggles of so many people, while growing up in a developing country, gave me a great dose of awareness about poverty and what people spared from it can do to alleviate it.”
Maria had the opportunity to graduate from law school and met her husband in Honduras. The couple has lived in Florida and Texas, before settling in Greenville four years ago. “My husband was born and raised in Greenville, SC. We have been married 25 years, so despite moving recently, I have visited Greenville and seen it transform through the years. We love Greenville and being close again to the mountains and the beach!” Maria also earned a graduate degree in business and found that she loved managing programs that served the major health issues of vulnerable people. In Texas and South Carolina, she coordinated and implemented the evidence-based Chronic Disease and Diabetes Self-Management Programs, developed by Stanford University. Soon after coming to Greenville, her work and heart led her to volunteer with the Hispanic Alliance Health Team.
She has enthusiastically supported the health fairs and cooking classes as a vendor or volunteer for the last three years. She has also volunteered and presented with the Education Team at their Annual College Fair. “My love and understanding of the Hispanic culture, and the challenges faced by immigrant communities played a role in my decision to volunteer for the Hispanic Alliance,” she explains. The Hispanic Alliance provides the incubation space for a wonderful group of professionals, within which Maria’s passions and interests have been influential, especially with the team’s choice to focus on diabetes prevention for the 2018 Health Cooking Class. It turned out to be Maria’s most meaningful experience with her team:
“I have great memories! One of my favorite moments is presenting the two healthy recipes with Karina Suri this year to the Hispanic community. It was a green smoothie and a vegetarian dish, so I was hoping people would like it. Our awesome health team cooked for a group of about 40 persons, and Karina and I did the demonstration. The team must have done a great job because everyone liked the recipes!”
Maria’s time in Honduras certainly exposed her to the damaging health effects of poverty, and her work to help people conquer diabetes kept steering her towards food choice as vital to community health. After her time with the Stanford study drew to a close, she was diligently seeking the next leg of her journey that would continue to make a positive impact on people in need. Her new role as the Manager of Our Lady’s Pantry for Catholic Charities of South Carolina is a perfect fit. She came on board in the strategic planning stages, and has thoughtfully shaped this initiative with the needs of the community in mind.
Our Lady’s Pantry is a start-up operation with a focus on wellness that just opened its doors on October 2nd, to serve people living with food insecurity in the Upstate. Located in the largely Latino San Souci community, it is housed in San Sebastian Catholic Church, a central organizer in the area. “We implement the “client choice” method of food distribution that preserves participants’ dignity by allowing them to select their own food based on their needs and preferences,” she explains. Services are by appointment and wrap-around services are available through organizations that partner with Catholic Charities.
“I can directly impact a person, and address wellness, poverty, and food insecurity in my community in a meaningful way. I get to know each person, everyone has a story. It is a humbling and rewarding experience in many ways. Our clients teach me perseverance and resilience, and our volunteers and donors, that giving back and respecting the dignity of every person, can go a long way to make this world a better place.”
As Maria shares about her life, it is evident that it is not just the particular combination of cultures that influences her sense of social responsibility, but more so the places and situations from which she draws wisdom. Unfortunately, she relates, “Hispanics are faced with lack of access to care, cultural barriers when receiving care, and a high incidence of chronic illness that increases with assimilation.” She can connect easily with people through her earnest desire to share what will truly make them well – even if its convincing folks to try food in unusual colors. “I just tried again at the pantry, and it worked with a child and mother. They both tried a green smoothie with spinach and liked it. It made my day! The small things we do every day ultimately have a big impact on our health, so I celebrate the small steps!”
Though she works daily with the complex intersection of culture and social needs, Maria’s understanding of heritage is blissfully simple. “My Hispanic heritage is the people and culture - the family, the delicious foods, the music, and the beautiful arts and crafts. The love and memories of the snowed mountains and the beautiful beaches of Cantabria in Northern Spain, the historic Mayan Ruins in Copan, the beautiful Bay Islands, and the gorgeous mountains surrounding the “Ciudad de los Zorzales” in Honduras - all have a very special place in my heart.”
“Living the richness of…three cultures has given me an appreciation for diversity in all its cultural forms and the ability to connect with people from all walks of life. These combined experiences taught me to value justice, education, nature, humanity, and solidarity. My years in Honduras gave me the desire to help others and the perspective to live life with gratitude, empathy, and purpose.”
Congratulations, Maria! You have achieved success according to your own values, and blessed our organization and community along the way.