Zaida Guajardo gave up a prestigious six-figure job with great perks in her native Puerto Rico to come to the United States and work for a nonprofit organization.
The energetic executive director of La Esperanza in Georgetown said the move was not what she expected at first, but it turned out to be the best decision of her life.
Located in the middle of Georgetown’s Latino community, La Esperanza – or hope, in English – provides services to help Latinos assimilate into Sussex County communities.
Founded in 1996 primarily to assist with immigration issues faced by a growing Mexican and Guatemalan population, the agency has branched out to offer mental, health, education and victims’ services to more than 8,000 clients each year.
In Puerto Rico, Guajardo worked for a telecommunications company and supervised 300 employees at three locations until one of her brothers living in the United States convinced her that her opportunities would be better in America.
She had lived in Delaware in the 1970s when her father moved here to find work. Her family moved back to Puerto Rico where she completed high school and college.
She took a three-year leave of absence, kept her home in Puerto Rico and moved back to Dover in 2000. To her surprise, she couldn’t find work for two years.
She landed a job as an administrative assistant – she had three of those at her old job – working for the Latin American Community Center in Wilmington where she stayed for four years.
It was not the job she had been searching for, but it opened another door. Guajardo says she has found her niche in the nonprofit world; she loves helping people. “Before I was always career-oriented and striving to get up the corporate ladder,” she said.
She came to work for La Esperanza five years ago, and she immediately put the lessons she learned in the corporate world to work.
She combines the empathy and compassion needed to work with new immigrants totally confounded by a new culture with the grace and style to sell La Esperanza’s mission to those who have the ability to make large donations.
Under her leadership the agency has increased programming, upped its staff from one full-time employee to 10 employees and pumped up the budget from $200,000 to $750,000.
More importantly, Guajardo says, there is $400,000 in the bank for the future.
She said it’s important that La Esperanza operate on a strong foundation, be self-sustaining and prepare for the future.
“We empower our clients, teach them to be self-sustaining and independent.
“We want them to follow our lead; we want to be their role models,” she said.
What she was taught as the youngest of five in her native Puerto Rico has stayed with her; it is the foundation of how she approaches her job at La Esperanza.
“I was taught early to work hard,” she said.
“I don’t believe in handouts except to the right person who really needs it. But to a point it has to be cut.”
Those who receive services at La Esperanza are asked to give back by donating money, skills or program help donations.
She also stressed that learning English is the most important step to learning to live in a new country.
“We push that message in every program we provide,” she said.
Guajardo said her team has had to reinvent the English programs after staff learned that many people did not comprehend the language because they were illiterate in their own language.
“I don’t look at this as a job,” she said. “I realize we can’t save the world, but one by one, we can help with the services we provide.” Guajardo is well aware of the complex issues surrounding Hispanic immigration into the United States. U.S. Census figures show as many as 1,500 people of Hispanic or Latino origin call Georgetown their home. In all of Sussex County that number jumps to about 13,000 residents. Contrary to what some might think, Guajardo said, all of those who come from Latin American countries want to become citizens.
“They don’t want to be in the shadows,” she said.
La Esperanza was formed 15 years ago to assist immigrants with immigration issues, and it’s still an important part of the mission today.
Because the road to citizenship or obtaining a work permit is complex and expensive, La Esperanza has staff and funding available to assist newcomers.
She and husband Fernando – they were married in 2004 – have a large combined family in their Lincoln home that includes their 2-year-old twins and four children – her two boys and his two girls – from previous marriages.
Although Puerto Rico will always be home to Guajardo, she has found a second home in Sussex County.
“Overall, the people here are so welcoming with a strong sense of community,” she said. “It’s very close to home for me."
What does La Esperanza do?
Programs are broken down into family, immigration, education, mental health and pre- and post-natal care services. Crucial to programming are the volunteer services provided by the Carmelite Sisters of Charity. The sisters not only helped form the agency but provide hundreds of hours of service each month.
Immigration: La Esperanza provides counseling and assistance to clients seeking to apply for political asylum, work permit renewal, permanent resident status and citizenship. About 1,500 immigration services are provided each year. The organization was founded in 1996 to provide these types of services.
Education: The agency provides citizenship classes, a Girl Scout program, storytelling time, English classes to assist with listening and speaking skills and a program to get parents more involved in their children’s education.
Pre- and post-natal care: La Esperanza collaborates with local and state health programs to provide direct services to low-income pregnant Hispanic women and their babies
Victims’ services: La Esperanza provides non-English-speaking victims of crimes, including sexual assault and domestic violence, with necessary information about their legal options. Intervention, preventive education and information are offered. Special assistance is available to victims of trafficking.
Family development: La Esperanza’s family development coordinator provides assistance with transportation, translation or interpretation services to those seeking employment, affordable housing and access to health providers, parenting classes and other services.
Mental health: La Esperanza has provided therapy and other assistance to Hispanic families who were victims of former Lewes pediatrician Earl Bradley. The program has grown to include more mental health and social work services.