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.

A Look Back Highlights from 2014

2014 has proven to be one of our most exciting years yet as we celebrate ten years of ministry and service to the immigrant community.  We’d like to share a few of our accomplishments with you, and also thank you for your support.  Without folks like you who believe in us and support us, we couldn’t do what we do.

We began by adding a 10-station computer lab to the Bridges of Hope program site, which gives the 27 students in the after-school program access to computers to do homework.  It also offers parents the opportunity to connect with their children’s school and teachers by internet. The 30 ESOL students also have access to the computers.  Project ¡Adelante! has also used the lab, providing classes for adults to master computer basics, improve keyboarding skills and learn to work with Microsoft Office programs.

Of the 128 students who received school supplies this year from LUCHA, 3 are college students, and they are among the students who have received supplies each year from LUCHA. Providing the essential tools for education, especially for middle and high school students, helps them focus on their education and follow their dreams.

Ten persons received scholarships through LUCHA to take American Red Cross courses in Spanish in Adult and Pediatric First Aid/CPR/AED, and we have received a grant that will fund 20 additional students during 2014-15. In-home childcare providers, parents of children with special needs, and others seeking to improve their skills to enable them to obtain a better job earned certification.

Approximately 1,400 persons received food assistance through LUCHA’s Cinco Panes program during 2014, and an additional 275 children received “Kids on the Go” food assistance during the summer vacation. Between 50 and 60 volunteers run this program, and all are from the immigrant community.  Most of them have received food assistance themselves. They work in an outdoor picnic shelter to sort and pack the food boxes, rain or shine, regardless of the temperature. A recent grant means they will soon have outdoor propane heaters for those bitter cold days.

In a given year, LUCHA touches approximately 250 families through its various programs. But while numbers are important, our true impact comes through things that can’t be measured. When we see persons reaching their potential, pursuing their dreams, and serving in their community. When we help reunite families, celebrate births and birthdays, and walk beside people in times of crisis. When we pray for our friends, and see the hand of God working in their lives.

As 2014 draws to a close, I give thanks for the privilege of serving Christ through LUCHA Ministries, and for each and every person who shares in this ministry. ¡A Dios sea la Gloria!

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.

Leaving For A New Tomorrow Sue Smith talks with a father, husband and son separated from his family in Mexico

We think of machismo as being somewhat synonymous with the Latin American male. You know the stereotype – the big, strong guy who rules the family with authority and strength, who would never shed a tear, whose word is law in his household.

Recently I asked one of these big, strong macho guys (a roofer, by the way) about his family back in Mexico. He told me about his wife, kids, and his aging parents; how it feels to be separated from them, and what he’s missing by being in the US. He talked about the loneliness and struggles and yet why he stays.

“My son is a good kid, and he’s growing up so fast! My wife and kids live on a finca with family. My son is 14 and in a good school, lives in a safe, rural area. He helps care for the animals and rides horses, and is taking on more responsibility from my dad . . . sure, he’s missed me growing up, but it’s normal for me not to be around. He knows why I’m not there, but it still makes me sad. I sometimes worry he doesn’t even care anymore that I’m away from them.”

Why ARE you here and not with them, I asked. “It’s my responsibility to provide for my family. In Mexico, I might make $100 per week if I’m lucky. That barely pays for the basics – food and shelter, maybe transportation. There’s not enough for clothes and shoes and things the kids need for school, for my wife to have nice things. And certainly not enough to help my parents as they get older. My mom had a stroke and can’t speak anymore. When I call, she just cries. I can hear her, trying to talk, but she always ends up sobbing. I want to be there, to help them, but they also need the money I send back. I can’t do both.” The macho image is slipping away.

I ask about his daughter, and his smile lights up his face. “I left for the U.S. two months before she was born, so I didn’t see her until she was five. And wow, she’s so great! I’ve seen her only that one time. But she can’t stop asking me where I am, when I’m coming home, why I can’t be at her birthday party. She reminds me there are events at school that parents are expected to attend, and I’m not there. She’s pretty hard on me, and I feel terrible. Sometimes I feel like a bad parent, because life isn’t all about the money. I’m missing so much with my family. But I’d do anything, give them everything, even if it means I have to be away from them.” He clears his throat, swipes at his watering eyes, and the macho image disappears completely.

I’m often asked, how can a parent leave his or her child behind in their home country for years at a time? The assumption is that they (dads, moms) just walk away, thinking only of themselves. But it’s not so simple. The current economic realities, the responsibility of providing for both young children and aging parents, and our cultural norms place enormous pressures on us.

Book Review: Jesus Was A Migrant "Throughout the book, the author demonstrates the strong faith of migrants... as she weaves biblical stories of exile, migration and flight."

70Jesus Was a Migrant, by Deirdre Cornell, offers short but poignant glimpses of the suffering and triumphs of the migrant community in the U.S. through her ministry with Spanish-speaking migrants and their families both in and outside the country.

Cornell’s experience comes from her work in upstate New York with migrant workers and as a Maryknoll lay missioner in Mexico. The first chapter of her book, aptly titled “Migrants Matter,” introduces the reader to the global phenomenon of migration and displacement, and the value migrants bring to the nations to which they travel to live and work.

Cornell leads the reader to see that the migrant experience in the U.S. has not only caused much suffering and trials for migrants, but it also is a great source of blessing, especially in the realization that so much of the Bible is written from and about the migrant experience. She weaves biblical stories of exile, migration and flight with contemporary stories of Latino men, women and children struggling to find life and dignity in a strange land. She even includes stories of how her own Irish family generations past struggled to make a new home in America.

Throughout the book, the author demonstrates the strong faith of migrants she has come to know and work with, and the ways God reveals the divine self through the migrant experience. Cornell closes her short book with a chapter called “Pure Grace” that calls on our country to address the issue of immigration and on all of us to open our hearts to the stranger among us.

Jesus Was a Migrant is available online through Amazon. And if you sign up for the “Amazon Smile” program (http://smile.amazon.com) and choose LUCHA as your charitable organization, Amazon will donate a portion of the purchase price to LUCHA Ministries.

Happy Thanksgiving Give thanks to the Lord because he is good, because his faithful love lasts forever. Psalm 118:1 (CEB)

Den gracias al Señor, porque él es bueno;
su gran amor perdura para siempre. Salmo 118:1 (NVI)

The most meaningful part of our ministry is hearing the stories of the people we work with and seeing how God is at work in their lives. They deal with many struggles and challenges, and at times things seem quite hopeless in their lives. But often, their faith is what keeps them going. As you read these personal accounts, please say a prayer for each one of them.

Eduardo* has spent most of 2014 behind bars, separated from family and friends. Recently he shared how he’s grown closer to God during this time. “[God] has given me a spirit of forgiveness, not bitterness. I know that’s got to be God — I couldn’t have done that alone.” Eduardo believes his incarceration has been a gift, a chance to grow in his faith and to become a better person. He has also been able to study and recently passed the GED exam. “I’m going to be a better person when this is behind me,” he says. “I have so much to be thankful for.”

For Ahida, this is a very special Thanksgiving, because she has her whole family with her in the US. Her two daughters recently arrived from El Salvador and one has made her a grandmother; baby Ashley was born in September. Read their story HERE, Two Young Immigrants Fleeing Violence Find Refuge — and Ministry — in U.S.

Marisol*, one of our DREAMers, will return to her studies at Bluefield College come January. Thanks to efforts by the school and to a generous donor, her outstanding balance has been paid and she can continue her education. “I am so blessed, so very blessed,” she says. “This is an answer to prayer, like a miracle.” She is one of three DREAMers from LUCHA who are studying at Bluefield College, a Baptist college in Southwest Virginia.

“Every time Francisco* gets in the car to go to work, I’m afraid he won’t come back home,” says Rocio, a young wife and mother who has recently applied for US citizenship. “What if he gets stopped, detained, has an accident? What will happen to us, to our family, if he’s deported?” Such is the life many of our families face every day. We are thankful for the executive action taken by President Obama that will protect parents of US-born children from deportation.

LUCHA is blessed to have a committed staff of ministers — people who probably don’t consider themselves either staff or ministers. For the most part they are average folks, volunteers who care for children, teach English, fill out paperwork, give people rides, and pack up food at the food bank. They give hugs and offer encouragement, pray with and for our families, and help provide access to medical and dental care. And most importantly, they take the time to get to know our immigrant families and to listen to their stories. They serve in programs like Bridges of Hope, Study Buddies and Bible Buddies, Project ¡Adelante!, Cinco Panes, and other initiatives.

And then there are folks like you, who may not be able to volunteer with us but who support LUCHA through your gifts, prayers, knowledge and expertise, and your words of encouragement. We are so very blessed. Thank you!! God is truly good, and his faithful love is evident in the lives of everyone who is serving and being served. Happy Thanksgiving!

*names have been changed

Health Fair Becomes Opportunity for Young Volunteer to Shine Ten-year-old Jessica Camacho is a take-charge type of volunteer.

72Ten-year-old Jessica Camacho is a take-charge type of volunteer. Give her a task, and she does it. She’s organized, efficient, and not afraid to take initiative. And if that’s not enough, she’s bilingual.

During September’s Latino Health Fair, sponsored by SINOVA (the Spanish Information Network of Virginia), Jessica arrived with her dad and older brother to spend the day as volunteers, and she agreed to work at LUCHA’s booth. With an emphasis on all types of health, LUCHA provided children’s books to encourage parents to read to or with their children as a way of promoting healthy lifestyles at home. Most of the books were new, and there was a good selection in both English and Spanish.

Jessica was simply asked to be in charge of the book distribution, and to give away as many books as possible to the children who were at the health fair. “You’re in charge, Jessica,” she was told. Since she loves to read, her assignment was ideal and her excitement showed. Surveying the five boxes of books she immediately went to work sorting and categorizing them. “It will be better if we know what we have,” Jessica said. “Then we’ll know what kind of book to offer each kid – chapter books, preschool books, or easy reading books.” The sorting process was also filled with exclamations of “Oh, I LOVE this one!” or “This is one of my favorites.”

After the books were sorted, she was ready for “customers,” but the children were slow to find the book corner. Jessica made signs and posted them around the building (in both English and Spanish). She then began inviting kids and parents to come by and pick out a book. Soon, she was surrounded by children who were carefully flipping pages, looking at pictures, and reading. “What do you like?” she would ask. “We can find a book about something that you’ll enjoy. And you can take it home.”

By the end of the day, Jessica had three other volunteers working with her, and they had found new homes for almost all the books. Jessica was able to share her love for books with others by taking the time to help each child choose a book that felt special to them. She turned what could have been a routine task into a truly special day for many children all while enjoying the opportunity to help. Thank you, Jessica, for being my volunteer.

Living Latino in the USA: Cultural Values "Why do they come?" - A series by Sue Smith, D.Min., MSW, Executive Director

When asked why she had emigrated to the United States from Nicaragua, a friend once told me, “Someone in my family — an aunt, an uncle, a cousin — has always gone north [to the U.S.] to work, to earn a decent salary and to send money back home to help support the rest of us. Especially the children, so they can stay in school and get a good education, and the ancianos who are getting older and can no longer earn a living. It was my turn, and I came.”

It is sometimes difficult for us in the U.S. to understand what compels Latino immigrants to come here, to leave behind their families and everything familiar, to come to a new place and start over. But these decisions are deeply rooted in cultural values and meaning, and a worldview that is often quite different from our own. The decision to emigrate is rarely just about what an individual wants from life. It more likely is made out of a sense of responsibility to do what is best for others, for one’s spouse, children, and parents. For North Americans, what may seem like a selfish decision to abandon one’s family is, to the immigrant, an act of self sacrifice to care for those he or she loves.

A starting point for understanding differences in worldview and culture is to look at the way we raise and socialize our children. As Americans, we value independence and self-sufficiency. White anglo parents emphasize self-esteem, autonomy, and self-confidence, while traditional Latino parents tend to place more emphasis on respect, obedience, conformity, and one’s place within the family. The most important message my parents instilled in me was this:You can go anywhere you want, be anything you want to be. And for my Latina friend, that message was:Never forget where you come from, or who you are.

And so when my friend says it was her turn to come to the US, her decision was not based on a selfish desire to come here and get a good job, buy a car, or live in a nice house. It was made because of her sense of responsibility to la familia, a way of giving back to those who enabled her to finish school and attend the university. Many immigrants cannot find work in their home countries to adequately provide for their families, and emigration is seen as their only hope.

As you hear the stories of Latino immigrants, take a moment to stop and ask yourself how that person fits into the bigger picture, into their familia. Did they embark on the journey to the U.S. as an adventure, an escape, or to get away from home? And what are they giving up? They may never see their parents alive again, and their children grow up without them. What sacrifices have they made, what losses have they experienced along the way?

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