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Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month

“During National Hispanic Heritage Month, from September 15 – October 15, the U.S. government celebrates the countless contributions of more than 60 million Hispanic Americans, Latinos, Latinas, and Latinx-identifying people to our culture and society” (US State Department website).

At World Relief Spokane, this month of celebration gives us the perfect opportunity to highlight two women on our staff who exemplify the Hispanic-American values we all hold dear: faith, family, country and hospitality.

Melissa leans against a window.

Melissa Stipek

Born and raised in Colombia, Melissa Stipek (a.k.a.”Mely) is the manager of the Friendship Center and the Community Ambassador program. Hospitality is in her DNA, and events are her happy place. The bigger, the better. Events foster a sense of community and belonging, and Mely wants the Friendship Center to be a safe place where people know they can come, be welcomed and directed toward the assistance they need.

Right now, Mely’s busy planning a baby shower for 15 newly arrived moms. Most of our clients do not have extended family nearby, and their support networks are in the process of being built. Mely wants to step into that gap and provide the celebration these moms and their babies need, along with diapers, baby wipes, clothes, blankets and more. She wants each mom to know she is surrounded with love and support.

Mely refers to the Friendship Center as “the happy side of World Relief.”

“I believe for people to be able to flourish, they need to be happy. When people are happy, their mind clears, and they are open to new ideas.”

Community Ambassadors provide the bridge between World Relief and the various ethnic communities. Open to drop-ins, the Community Ambassador Team play a vital role in two-way communication with their respective communities. They let the communities know the resources and services available at World Relief and throughout the broader community. At the same time, they provide feedback to World Relief staff about the trends, capacities and needs they hear about when working with community members.

Morella Perez Suels

World Relief Education Services Manager and Venezuelan immigrant, Morella Perez Suels, leads a team committed to creating classes that enable new arrivals to address the hurdles they face and become flourishing residents in their new home country.

Morella understands the depth of services needed by immigrants in Spokane. Government resettlement contracts cover a refugee family’s first 90 days in the country. During that time, World Relief assists families with finding and securing permanent housing, connecting with benefits, enrolling children in school, finding health care providers and all the fundamentals of establishing life in a new country. But, in order to flourish, so much more is required.

The barriers to integration can be overwhelming. Many new arrivals struggle with their English language skills, computer skills, transportation and finances. Morella has implemented classes in each of these areas. Her method of operation is to listen to the needs of the various ethnic communities. From the Afghan community, she learned that a majority of mothers did not know basic computer skills. Hence, that was the first class she implemented. Women were given a laptop at the start of the class to take home and build their skills, assist their children with homework and engage in online activities.

"The United States represents hope, the opportunity to rebuild, it is a window to show our best talents and put them at the service of the country that has welcomed us." -Morella Perez Suels, Education Services Manager Click To Tweet

Next, she learned that men in the same community were having trouble understanding banks and credit unions, and so she invited Gesa Credit Union to teach a class in financial literacy. They agreed and provided an instructor for the ten-week course held at World Relief offices. Five men finished the first course with the knowledge to open accounts and establish their credit. The second class, directed at the Congolese community, attracted even more attendees. One man said, “I wish I had this class earlier. Then I wouldn’t have made as many mistakes.”

When Morella learned that many immigrant women are isolated and unable to get employment, she started planning a textile arts class with a bent toward entrepreneurship, so women who stay home might still be able to contribute to the family income and have connection to the outside world. The first class just ended and the women were able to take home the sewing machines to launch their own cottage businesses if they so desire.

Morella immigrated from Venezuela in 2016, so she knows the struggles immigrants are facing firsthand. (More than 7 million people have fled Venezuela since 2015 due to an ongoing political and economic crisis. The vast majority of these individuals are living in neighboring countries as refugees while many others have come to the United States either on temporary visas or seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border.) Her mission is to empower refugees and other immigrants to build new lives, ensuring that they have the education and resources to do so.

Both Mely and Morella value their Hispanic heritage, as well as the opportunities and freedom they have found in America.

“What I value most about my Hispanic heritage,” Morella said, “is that we are the result of a mixture of races that has taught us to respect multiculturalism, allowing us to value others with true humility from our differences, opening ourselves with trust and brotherhood, showing that we are happy here and that we are proud of our roots.

“The United States represents hope, the opportunity to rebuild, it is a window to show our best talents and put them at the service of the country that has welcomed us.”

Mely’s comments were similar: “In the USA, during Hispanic Heritage Month, I absolutely love the mix of cultures, the amazing chances we have, and the potential for a brighter future for my family. I celebrate my Colombian roots and make sure my kids know how important it is to keep these wonderful customs, traditions, language, foods, and more alive.”

Morella summed up: “But the most important thing is that despite the challenges that emigration represents, we are able to adapt without losing the emotional memory of our traditions, and perhaps the smells of a wood stove where the arepas are roasted can make us nostalgic but also keeps us focused on the reasons that motivated us to emigrate in the first place.

“We are faithful and grateful to the opportunities that are open to us and we recognize that although there are barriers, we face them, overcome them and rebuild ourselves.”

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