By Jennifer L. Warren
GREENBURGH – September 15 to October 15 might officially mark Hispanic Heritage Month, but for Maria Portilla, it’s a celebration she embraces all year.
“I really appreciate that there is a time that people can be thankful to all the work Hispanics have made and continue to make to this country,” said Portilla about the special month former President, Ronald Reagan, officially proclaimed in 1989. “However, this month truly belongs to all immigrants who have come to this country; it’s not an easy journey at all, starting from scratch with everything.”
Portilla, who next month will be celebrating the one year anniversary of the extremely rewarding volunteer role she was appointed to by Greenburgh Town Advisor, Paul Feiner, as Special Advisor/Liason to the Hispanic community in her home town-whose clients know no region bounds (she helps whoever is in need) is well-versed in the slippery slope far too many immigrants face. A proud Peruvian immigrant, Portilla, who is a first generation professional with two Master’s Degrees, faced many challenges when coming to the United States, including; language barriers and not being able to pursue the social work career she was credentialed for in her home country. That first hand-experience of the hardships far too many immigrants endure, coupled with Portilla’s passion for giving back to her community, have resulted in a close to 12 month venture which has put a huge smile on her face and joy in her heart.
“The Program is covering the needs and concerns of the Hispanic residents here in Greenburgh which was one of my main goals from the start,” said Portilla, herself a 20 year resident of the town in Westchester County. “I can see little by little people are feeling more comfortable coming into the Town Hall; they are no longer in limbo without any direction or a place to go and feel accepted and have their concerns recognized.”
And those issues span a wide range of topics, including; expired greencards, domestic abuse, learning English, obtaining vital services for their children, and being taken advantage of by lawyers in the immigration process. Oftentimes, Portilla is learning those issues do not exist in isolation. Her vast counseling experience and unbridled compassion have allowed her to assist in ways never before made available to this population.
“The Program is providing critical guidance using the assessments I have in place,” explained Portilla. “For example, a woman came in for help getting baby formula, and during the assessment, I learned her Green Card was going to expire in September, but she didn’t have the means to get a replacement; I was able to help her get the process in place by mid-August.”
Satisfying moments such as those have brought positivity and hope as she reflects upon her first year in the unique role. Despite the progress, Portilla continues to see challenges ahead; however, they are already ones she has confronted head-on. Exorbitant lawyer fees assessed to clients navigating immigration that result in little help have left Portilla frustrated at times. The determined Portilla has countered with the assistance of her own volunteer attorney as well as the added help of the Immigration Clinic at nearby Pace University.
“Thanks to these resources, I can now give proper guidance to immigrants and in the process relieve their stress,” said Portilla. “I can help them figure out the system as well as even complain about it the right way if necessary.”
Not only has Portilla attained priceless new knowledge during her first year journey in the role, but so too other intangible pearls to add to her “toolbox.”
“I’ve become more understanding being in this role,” said Portilla, whose list of skills continues to expand, including activating Medicaid Cards, translating for attorneys, and advocacy. “There is always, always something more to learn, and I want to as much as I can.”
She also is intent on continuing to set lofty goals. One of these aspirations, organizing a Hispanic Advisory Committee, is already in motion; while the other, encouraging the Hispanic Community to participate in the Town Advisory Committee, has been happening by means of her motto: “Little by little.”
A third elusive goal exists: Expanding a similar position to hers to other communities, many of which are in dire need.
“There are Hispanics in all towns, but unfortunately not all have a place to go for issues like domestic abuse which some think is acceptable, and there is no counseling or education for these people in these places,” pointed out Portilla. “However, once that becomes available to those who learn, they in turn can teach others and become ambassadors, passing on that information while empowering those in their communities.”
“We are here to carry out our purpose, and this is mine,” said a smiling Portilla. “I remain and can handle this by myself thanks to my toolbox of experience, and I’m just so very happy to do it, as the satisfaction of really helping people, in need- seeing them thrive- is the best payment I can get.”