“Leadership and Empowerment” – Graduation Celebrates Lives Transformed

By Eric L. Steckel

This graduation was unlike any that I had attended. It wasn’t supposed to be like the others. Don’t get me wrong, there were graduates in robes and proud family members taking photographs. They even played “Pomp and Circumstance” as they have done at every other graduation that I attended. However, this one was very different.

The graduating class of the Latina Leadership

The 2015 Women’s Health and Leadership Class

This was the 2015 Women’s Health and Leadership class. In collaboration with the Latina Center, Catholic Charities of the East Bay work with Latina women (and men) to teach lifelong leadership and family skills. It is an intense, one-year long program where the students attend classes for 3-hours every Friday night. “The goal is to instill in these women and men a spirit of empowerment so that they can be leaders in their home, community and work,” explains Marta Olivares, Family Literacy Program Coordinator at Catholic Charities of the East Bay.

So what was so different about this celebration? There was a spirit of comradery and togetherness that I don’t recall seeing in celebrations like this before. Many from this group share similar immigrant stories. Language and education barriers led to feelings of low self-esteem. All of them have cast aside those feelings of inadequacy, and they share that feeling of accomplishment.

Marisol Hernandez - class gradaute

Marisol Hernandez – class gradaute

Marisol Hernandez is one of this year’s graduates. She first came to Catholic Charities seven years ago when she enrolled in English as a Second Language classes and met Martha Nieto, a Family Literacy Program case manager. The two stayed in touch throughout the years, and whenever Martha had a workshop or class, Marisol would enroll. “Last year, I took this class because I was very shy. I really couldn’t speak to anyone,” Marisol explained. “I would stay at home with my kids, and I couldn’t even have this conversation, looking at you eye-to-eye.”

Marisol was determined to overcome her fears. She attended class every Friday, and excelled in the program, but it wasn’t always easy. “The speaking in public was so hard. Sometimes I wanted to quit, but every time, they encouraged me to stay with it,” she confessed. “They taught me perseverance. Now I can speak and express myself. I want to go back to college and study to be a massage therapist. I’m more motivated to do something with my life.”

One of the classes in the program was an incubator for small business taught at the Latina Center. With her interest in health and fitness, she is contemplating a business making all-natural juices and teaching fitness classes.

Marisol’s life was truly transformed. “Before this, I had no dreams. Nothing at all. I just wanted to stay home with my kids. I didn’t even feel I could get a job because I had such low self-esteem. After coming to these classes, they help me visualize my life. I can see further. I can dream of a better future.”

“Each graduate has touched the lives of people in their family and community,” boasts Miriam Wong, founder and director of the Latina Center. That is a crucial part of the program’s success, as these determined graduates set an example to their family and have an impact on their community. “Pride, growth and change – this is what the Hispanic community should outwardly show.”

Like Marisol, this was the culmination of a journey that was inconceivable to most of the graduates just a year ago. Together, they discovered an inner-strength that they did not realize was there. By overcoming their fears, they became empowered. Through empowerment, they now dare to dream.