Irene’s Story LUCHA reunites Peruvian woman with family

“I can’t imagine being in another country without any family, with no one caring where I am. I can’t imagine being that alone in the world.”

-Sue Smith, Director of LUCHA Ministries, Inc.

Irene Calderón is 78-years-old with a face full of sun-warmed wrinkles and a voice that lilts like music.

“Ma-mitaa, cómo esta niñaa,” the words moved up and down when she laughs.

The small Peruvian grandmother is wearing frayed camo pants that don’t reach all the way to her ankles and has dark hair covered by a bright blue cap. Upon meeting her, the community falls in love with her open smile and dark eyes tinged with indigo, lines crinkling the corners.

Many community members have never met anyone more animated—or more lost.

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Irene, an immigrant from Peru, was living with her son when he was deported several years ago. Her job was to care for children as a nanny, but from there, her story trails off in diverging, jumbled directions.

Her employers discarded her after their children grew up, forcing her to live on the streets. Although multiple Latino families took her in, Irene had the beginnings of dementia and became confused. She’d wake up, not remember where she was, think she wasn’t being paid and run away to find a better job.

“And she can really run. Have you seen her run? Like a child,” says Sergio, a member of the community who cared for her while she was homeless.

The police picked Irene up on one of Fredericksburg’s coldest nights and took her to Micah Ecumenical Ministries, a nonprofit partnership of over 10 churches helping the chronically homeless.

“She showed up to our shelter on a snow day. She spoke no English and was clearly confused, which put our staff in a panic about how to help her,” says Meghann Cotter, executive servant-leader at Micah Ministries.

This is where LUCHA came in. The homeless shelter called Sue and Greg Smith, directors of LUCHA Ministries, an organization providing holistic care for Spanish-speaking immigrants.

“While Sue was reaching out to the Hispanic community to figure out where she belonged, a number of our clients took her under their wing to make sure she was ok,” Cotter says.

Despite only speaking a few phrases of Spanish, members of the homeless community cared for Irene in the cold weather shelter. Substance abuse counselor, Darrell Chavez, who had just finished an overnight shift, volunteered to drive Irene to back to the Latino grocery store where the owner and waitresses had been caring for her during the day.

LUCHA and the owners of the Panaderia-Aury bakery discovered Irene had family members in Virginia who were unable to care for her. With the help of the Latino immigrant network and Facebook, they were able to track down her family in Peru. Some of Irene’s documents had been stole n and her passport had expired. LUCHA suspects it was a labor trafficking situation: a family had hired Irene to be a nanny then took away her documents forcing her to work for them. After a visit to D.C. and several phone calls, LUCHA worked with the consulate of Peru to secure the necessary materials to reunite Irene with her family.

An entire community comes together

Members of the community loved Irene, from the homeless volunteers who rallied around her when she was lost to the various Latino families who housed her at no cost to themselves. This is where cultural norms became apparent. In immigrant culture, it’s uncommon to see people who are homeless.

“We don’t have anyone on staff that speaks Spanish because we typically don’t see clients from the Hispanic community,” Cotter says. “Generally, they are a culture that takes care of one another and will have someone sleeping on the couch [or] the extra bedroom …before letting someone sleep on the street.”

That’s why Irene’s case is so unusual. Family is paramount and to see someone, especially an older woman, living alone was an anomaly for the Smiths.

“I can’t imagine being in another country without any family, with no one caring where I am, “ says Sue Smith. “I can’t imagine being that alone in the world.”

The situation caused LUCHA to question their preconceived notions about mental illness, immigrants and homelessness and to remember to never assume when it comes to their diverse and varied clients.

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On March 4, Greg, Sue and  Rodrigo Boluarte, Peruvian Consul, accompanied Irene to the airport and saw her off as she flew for Lima and ultimately Arequipa, Peru. Micah Ecumencial Ministries organized their Fredericksburg partner churches to raise funds to buy her ticket. It was hard for many to see Irene leave, especially since she was still confused about where she was and what she was doing.

“It’s a hard situation, but I believe being with her family is what’s best for her,” says Smith.

As she was wheeled down the runway, Irene turned and waved to the Smiths and the Peruvian ambassador with both hands, smiling the entire way to the plane.

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In Unity Lies Strength “En la Unión está la Fuerza”

“En la Unión está la Fuerza” (In Unity lies Strength)

Latinos or Hispanics are far from being a homogeneous group.  Immigrants come from different countries and ethnicities, speak a multitude of languages and celebrate diverse holidays and customs. A farmer from the mountains of Honduras will be very different from a businesswoman raised in inner- city El Salvador.  However, there are some unifying factors that contribute to common values for persons of Latino or Hispanic heritage.

One principle is a tendency to embrace a communitarian worldview, to understand the individual as part of a larger system – a family or group. Latinos are taught people are at their best when they live in community and understand their responsibilities to others.

“We [the immigrant community] come together when someone has a problem,” says Hermilindo Roblero, a Guatemalan immigrant.  “We may have our differences, but when we need to raise money for a funeral or help a family when the head of the household has been deported, we do it.”

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Latin America is strongly influenced by this sense of community and still has physical reminders of unity with each other and with God.  Today pueblos, a word that means both village and people, are laid out around a town square that includes a church facing a plaza, park, or common area.  For over 500 years of Hispanic history, this has been the norm.

This is the place where the pueblo, or people, come together to worship, relax and catch up on the latest news and gossip.  The plazas are popular on Sundays, when people gather for mass and spend time with family, sharing ice cream and snow cones or just people-watching.  The plaza is a busy place and the heart of the town.

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In the US, many Latin American immigrants struggle with the emphasis on the individual.  As North Americans, we value independence and celebrate when our children can do things on their own and don’t need us anymore.  We teach our kids to express their opinions and to take responsibility for themselves and the direction of their lives.  And while this is all good, we see fewer physical reminders of our connectedness. There is no plaza where we gather together, and we have the tendency to become isolated and stop seeing the needs in our communities.

Despite the differences among Latin American immigrants, there are times when various groups come together and unite as one pueblo, one community.  Unity comes easily around a common issue, such as immigration reform, or advocacy for DREAMers. This sense of community is particularly strong when someone is in crisis and needs strength to get through hard times.

“They are a culture that takes care of one another and will have someone sleeping on the couch or the extra bedroom before letting someone sleep on the street,” says Meghann Cotter from Micah Ecumenical Ministries, an organization serving the homeless in Fredericksburg.

It’s uncommon to see many homeless and hungry people in the Latino community.  There’s always room for another person somewhere in the house and an extra bit of rice in the pot.  This communitarian worldview is the salvation of many immigrants who feel very alone in the U.S.

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This is also the spirit LUCHA promotes: the idea that we are family in Christ. It takes the pueblo, the many individuals and diverse groups working together, to become a pueblo, the village and community united in solidarity and support.

Want to make a difference? How You Can Help LUCHA Ministries

Many people ask, “How is LUCHA funded?”  LUCHA is its own 501(c)3 non-profit organization, and is not directly supported by any specific organization.  During FY 2014, approximately 65% of our financial support came from individual donors, and the remaining 35% through churches, special offerings, grants, and from other organizations. That means that you, our friends and neighbors, are a vital part of what we do.

God has allowed LUCHA Ministries to do some amazing things, and yet we are at a point where LUCHA needs to increase its revenue in order to do even more, to better serve our immigrant families, to raise awareness and serve as advocates. We continue to depend on dedicated volunteers, who are very committed and work tirelessly for LUCHA, but we need another paid staff member to direct programs, manage logistics and help us coordinate volunteer efforts. We can and do utilize student workers and interns, but we must provide for their expenses and/or offer a stipend. While the costs are skyrocketing, so too are the needs.

We’ve all been hearing about unaccompanied minors coming to our area to be reunited with family here in the US.  Their needs are formidable, and their families are often overwhelmed when they arrive.  Several of the families we serve are sponsors for recently-arrived family members, and we provide food, help with transportation, and ensure that they find the help they need in the community.  Your donations help provide emergency assistance to help these and other needy families get through times of crisis.

Project ¡Adelante! needs stipends for English teachers and other instructors, and for scholarships for students to earn professional certifications, such as training through the American Red Cross.  Providing childcare for preschoolers allows parents to study English while their children receive homework assistance through Bridges of Hope, and it also provides part-time work, training, and experience for the childcare providers.

We want your help! Please commit to giving, volunteering, serving, and/or praying for LUCHA. Consider talking with your church, Bible Study or missions group and ask them to support us. Maybe you sit on the board of a foundation or organization that would consider aiding our efforts and can help by recommending LUCHA Ministries for financial assistance.  We spend considerable time writing grant applications in an effort to raise more revenue, and your help in finding potential grants or securing funding is very important.

Also, when you shop through Amazon, be sure to use AmazonSmile and designate LUCHA as your charity of choice.  Every little bit goes a long ways toward caring for immigrant families struggling in their new home.  And finally, check the opportunities for giving through your workplace.  As a member of the Rappahannock United Way, LUCHA can receive donations through federated campaigns.

In celebration of our first ten years of ministry, we hope you will donate ten dollars per month to assist LUCHA in serving the needs of our immigrant community.  Our commitment in the community is the result of dedicated and hard-working volunteers as well as the gracious giving of our donors.  In addition to giving online via PayPal (no account necessary), we welcome your cash and checks.  Your gifts are tax deductible.

We are thankful to God that you choose to be part of this ministry, and continue to be amazed and humbled by God’s provision.  Please click HERE to donate.

The Hope LUCHA's support provides encouragement for young immigrants, as seen in this new video

As we complete ten years of work with immigrant families, LUCHA has the privilege of knowing many young adults who have literally grown up with us.  “The Hope” features two of these young people.

We initially focused on the needs of immigrant adults but soon realized that we needed to include the family as well. Immigrants often told us that they had come to the US to give their children a better life, and we wanted to help make this possible. We support families by providing school supplies, offering youth and enrichment activities during the summers, and providing homework assistance to children.

LUCHA helps create a strong, healthy family environment by giving parents the tools they need to be good parents. We guide them through the challenges of parenting bicultural children who are both Latino and American, who share values from both cultures. We help them understand the school system and the role of parents in the educational process.

And these efforts pay off. Watch our new video, The Hope, to see how two young immigrants are thriving in college today, thanks to the sacrifice of their parents, the encouragement of LUCHA, and the willingness of a school to accept them.