Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Handing off my Baby

I've blogged about LLI before, the non-profit I have worked for since 2012. LLI empowers Latinas to become stronger leaders through leadership development sessions, one-on-one mentoring, and a six-month community service project. Through the process of completing the program, the participants become a family, a strong network of support to one another, along with their mentors and board members. 

Recently, some life changes led to my deciding to step down as executive director. It was not an easy choice. The program was barely more than a website and idea when I was hired. I got to shape it into one of the most impacting programs for Latinas that I have ever seen. It is something I wish I would have had when I was first starting my career, and many other Latinas have shared that sentiment. 

I was routinely in awe of the drive and tenacity of the participants who invested their time and money to develop themselves. Employers weren't forcing them to be there; they didn't get to stop their other commitments to focus on this; they didn't get college credit for it. They applied out of an inner-motivation to be better leaders. This in itself was impressive because so many applicants were already super involved and had accomplished so much. Their hunger for more, and their desire to give back kept me enthralled and in love with my job.

For four years Latina Leadership Initiative of Greater Des Moines was my baby. The women who graduated from the program felt like my kids going off into the world to change it and make it better for their sisters. For as cheesy as that sounds, it is also very accurate. I can recall every graduate and feel a connection to them that I can't imagine will ever go away. Seeing them continue to make amazing accomplishments fills me with a pride that is almost unparalleled. What sticks with me the most is seeing the women bond in a way that is unique to the environment of trust I helped build. 

As I move on to other adventures, I am enthusiastically elated that it will be in the hands of one of the women who invested in herself two years ago as part of LLI's Class of 2015. Vivian applied in hopes of finding direction, community and a place that valued and strengthened her talents. During her time in the program I saw her confidence escalate, and her passion grow. She developed a stronger voice of conviction and advocacy that is becoming a lifelong part of who she is. Almost immediately after graduating from the program she got together with her fellow graduates and helped launch the LLI alumni association, designed to offer continued leadership development opportunities, networking and continue the sisterhood developed during the program. Shortly thereafter she joined the board of directors and brought a new perspective to the table. A year later she was voted the president of the board and led with respect, integrity and unrelenting enthusiasm and dedication to the program and the women it serves. 

When I alerted the board of my plans to leave my position, I secretly hoped that Vivian would apply. She is the embodiment of what the program is designed to do. We want our graduates to push themselves, try things they have never done, take risks when opportunities come their way and feel confident in their support systems to take them on. Vivian is doing that. She had never been a board president, but that didn't stop her from running. She hadn't been an executive director, but her zealousness for giving back to a program that meant so much to her was greater then her doubt or fear. 

Her earnestness to learn and devotion to her LLI sisters shines every time she talks about LLI, and it is genuine in a way that makes people want to know more about LLI. That is what the program needs as it moves towards growth and financial stability. When Vivian shares her story with potential funders, participants, mentors and community supporters it will be hard for them not to become enraptured by the positive energy she emits when talking about LLI. This assures me that I am leaving it in the right hands and can face my next steps confident that my baby is still getting the same love and attention I have been pouring out these last four years.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

A Festival that is Part of History

One of the accomplishments I am extremely proud of is being a founder of Iowa's Latino Heritage Festival. 

Back in 2001, when I first moved to Des Moines, I was invited to join a group of volunteers who wanted to have a festival to celebrate Latino culture in Iowa. I wanted to get involved with the community and I liked the idea, so I signed on. Warren was one of the volunteers and over the course of planning the first Iowa Latino Heritage Festival he and I got to know each other pretty well and spent lots of time together working on the various details. 

We were an impressive cross-section of young professionals and established community leaders who put countless hours into finding a way to celebrate the various Latino cultures represented across the state. None of us had done anything like that before. We were learning as we went, and becoming friends in the process. To this day I have dear friends I met through the festival.

The first festival was scheduled to take place Saturday, Sept. 15, 2001. We had the permits in place for closing off streets. Tent vendors had paid deposits, a full day of entertainment had been mapped out, food vendors had committed to selling tacos, pupusas, arepas and other Latin American delicacies. Then September 11th happened. We were as stunned as everyone else. There was no way were going to have a celebration in the midst of mourning. We postponed the festival to the following spring.

In the meantime, Iowa became a tense place to live for people of olive skin and accents. The English-only laws were being challenged by the growing Latino community and it seldom felt comfortable or safe to speak Spanish in public. There was a bomb scare at the local Jewish school where a friend of mine had a daughter. I got suspicious looks when I was out and about. As a Peruvian friend and I walked down the street, a white guy in a pick-up truck yelled out, TERRORISTS and threw a Coke bottle at us. I seriously began second-guessing my choice to live here.

Since all the deposits we had made for the festival were non-refundable, we had to start fund-raising again. It took over six months to launch the first Latino Festival in Iowa. It was a beautiful spring day, perfectly clear skies and warm enough that everyone wanted to be outdoors after a cold winter. Having never put on an event of this magnitude, we didn't know what to expect in terms of attendance. We told vendors to plan for three to five-thousand people. We were seriously underestimating this community's desire to celebrate.

Roughly ten-thousand people came to that first festival. Food vendors that also had restaurants called their employees and told them to close the restaurant and come help with the festival. They made runs to buy more supplies. Buses from rural communities came packed to the brim with Latinos who organized through their churches to get to and from the festival. It was amazing to see that unfold.

The most impacting memory I have of the day is walking around with my festival volunteer t-shirt, and someone grabbed my arm. It was an elderly Latina with tears in her eyes. In Spanish, she asked me, "Did you help do this?" "Yes," I told her. She closed her eyes and squeezed my arm and thanked me. She pointed at a Latino teen a few feet away wearing a shirt with the flag of the Dominican Republic and he was laughing and talking with another teen. She said, "That's my grandson. He has refused to speak Spanish to me, or anyone else since the bombing. But look at him now, speaking our language and wearing his flag with pride, at peace." I was floored, moved  beyond words at what this moment meant to this older lady, who had probably been through so much to be in this country, to see her grandchildren have more than she could offer her own children. She hugged me and thanked me again. To this day, that moment is clear as day in my mind and makes me smile when I recall it.

At the end of the day, I was so exhausted that I fell asleep in the bathtub, but I was also so content and proud of what we had done. We didn't set out to change the cultural landscape of the city, or the state, but in putting our hearts and talents to work in ways that challenged us, for the good of our community as a whole, we did just that. Today this festival is the largest cultural festival in the state. It has expanded to a two-day celebration and draws nearly thirty-thousand people. I served on the board and volunteered for ten years. Since Warren's passing I have had to diminish my role to running a cultural booth to showcase Puerto Rican culture, but I still look forward to it every year, and walk around and feel that same pride and sense of purpose I did at the first festival, knowing that I was part of making history.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

A Reminder of Abilities and Desires

A man must choose a path which will let his ABILITIES function at maximum efficiency toward the gratification of his DESIRES.
 - Hunter S. Thompson, Writer
    April 22, 1958

Aside from being a newlywed, some of my happiest times were spent on a college campus. Truth is, if I could afford to do so, I would be a professional student, collecting Masters degrees and PhDs in a bunch of different subjects of interest. Unfortunately, that is not the case. So, the next best thing is to work at a university, which I currently do. I get a lot of energy from the students, and love seeing their growth in knowledge, but also seeing them overcome personal challenges that come with pursuing higher education.

I was a first generation college student. I didn't have someone at home to help me through the application process or help finding grants. What I had were committed parents who believed I could do it, and encouraged me to find resources to help me when they could not. I was lucky to have a college counselor and knew some people who had gone through the process. Maybe I was cocky, but I never questioned my ability to get into college. My desire to pursue that path was too strong to stand in my way. Lack of experience with the process was not a barrier or deterrent. If anything, it probably made me more determined to succeed. 

That's the same desire and determination I am applying to becoming published. It is a grueling process, full of rejection, doubt and hard work. I second guess decisions in my journey, and there are times that it frustrates me to no end - feelings very similar to those I felt when I was navigating the college application process. The difference is that I have trouble focusing on the light at the end of the tunnel, whereas in my younger days, I think I had tunnel vision. Perhaps it's my faulty memory, but I don't recall feeling like college acceptance was out of my reach. 

Living on a college campus, attending classes in lecture halls filled with hundreds of other students, meeting people from all over the country and the world, those were the visions that kept me moving forward. This week I got to spend time on a different college campus than where I work. I talked to a a bunch of first generation Latinx students who reminded me of myself when I was first at Iowa State University. We talked about the pull of family, the guilt that comes with the privilege of higher education, the pressure to make our families proud, and the need for more of us to reach out and help others facing the same challenges we faced. They shared their goals for post-college and their excitement was infectious. It put me back on that campus where I have so many delightful memories and moments that helped form the woman I am today. College for me was life-changing in more ways than gained knowledge. 

Talking to those students, I couldn't help but ponder my abilities and desires, much as I did when I was their age. My immediate goals have changed, but above all, I want to be happy and good role model for my daughter. In doing so, I want to be fearless, a risk-taker, and a woman who doesn't give up, or let obstacles stop me from reaching goals, even when they seem out of reach. That was who I became those years of living on my own in a small city that was the complete opposite of home. Over time, I think I have softened, and I don't like it. 

I'm not as fearless as I once was. There are so many factors to consider when thinking about what it takes to reach and maintain happiness. Taking risks affects more lives for me today than it did back then. I don't recall college rejections, but editors passing on my book are recent, fresh and sting more than I care to admit. It doesn't make me want to give up, but it does often give me a bad case of writer's block, with a healthy does of writer's envy.

The sacrifices of risk in the pursuit of happiness are many. Happiness doesn't come without hard work, tears, frustrations and struggles along the way. There are scary moments, and times when it feels excessively out of reach. But, I'm confident that the outcome on the other side is worth it. The ultimate challenge is remembering that I have the abilities to fulfill my desires, and I have proven that to myself time and time again. Time to start reminding myself of this daily.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Giving Life

Last week I had lunch with a friend who is also a widow with a story much like mine. I met her in a grief support group and we connected right away. She reached out to me one day and the bond was almost instant. It's crazy how our grief brought us so close so quickly and deeply, but she is a gift that Warren gave, even in death.

Speaking of gifts after death, she and I talked a lot about organ donation. Both our husbands were donors and saved several lives. Since her loss she has been an avid proponent of organ and tissue donation, speaking on behalf of the Iowa Donor Network for a little over three years. Doing so gave her a purpose, a message to share in relation to her tremendous loss. It was therapeutic for her to share the story, and in many ways, sharing that story was a gift from her husband that led to her healing.

As we talked, we agreed that all organs give life. People often think of hearts giving life, but even corneas can give new life to someone facing blindness. Sure, people can live with blindness and millions do. However, if you've ever talked to someone who was losing their sight and then was given the chance to see again, or see for the first time opens a new life for that person. We talked about how quality of life is as important as life itself. While being able to see may not sound like life or death, it adds to the quality of life and without it, some afflicted with new blindness go through deep depression that can lead to suicide. 

That has been on my mind lately because it is part of the plot of my new novel that I am working on while my other story is on submission. It keeps me busy while editors pass on my earlier writing, but it is also a story I feel emotionally attached to. The topics and themes are ripped from my life, that of my daughter's, and of other people who have endured a death of someone close to them. I wrote from incidents that happened the night Warren died, and took my feelings and explored them through a fictional widow and her daughter. Their relationship is a mosaic of many of the relationships I've had over the years with people who have offered support and understanding; as well as those who were at a loss and shied away; or who came into my life afterwards and have gotten to know me as the woman navigating life without her soulmate, the angry single mom, the frenzied MFA student, and the aspiring writer.

All these parts of me are coming together in this story and I get excited to work on it, even as I dread going to the places the story leads. There is darkness and confusion, hope and love, but most of all it is a story about relationships. Aside from relationships between characters, there is the relationship between a specific character and his future, which is threatened by blindness, revitalized by the gift of organ donation. But, like any relationship, it's not that simple. Donors often deal with the weight of the receiving such a life-changing gift, as does this character. Writing this story has given me a chance to look at life and death from a different perspective. It has taught me about the process and the need for organ donors. It has made me think about the gifts that Warren continues to give, to myself and to complete strangers, serving as a role model for a decision he made without hesitation for no reason other than to give. I am proud of him for that decision that is providing me the gift of story, based on one of my personal heroes.

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