Maria never imagined that a neighbor suggesting she reach out to United Community for food assistance for her and her infant daughter six years ago would have made such a difference in her life.
But that suggestion, which seemed like a small one at the time, was the beginning of a journey for Maria, one that has seen her grow, acquire new skills, and inspire others to take a path like her own.
Maria’s first interaction with United Community was through Stepping Stones, a program that provides critical basic needs and supportive services to families in need of emergency assistance. In addition to food, Maria needed dental work and was not in a financial position to get the care she needed.
CJ Ekeagwu, Senior Director of Stepping Stones, saw Maria from time to time at our Fordson Road location, and eventually he took over her case, listening and working with her despite the language barrier. CJ was able to build trust with Maria, and eventually was able to provide her with the financial assistance to finish her dental work, but she had to enroll in an English as a Second Language course at United Community’s Progreso Literacy and Citizenship Center.
At Progreso, Maria not only learned English, but she also met friends and neighbors and became part of the community.
“Our English as a Second Language (ESL) classes really create a sense of community,” said Cristina Schoendorf, Senior Director of Progreso. “She went from feeling alone, isolated, and vulnerable to meeting others who also find themselves in a new country where they do not know the language. They support each other in their education. Because of this, Maria was able to find her voice to become an advocate for other women and young mothers in similar circumstances.
During the Thanksgiving and holiday potluck dinners at Progreso, Maria began to invite women who live alone to enjoy the festivities and learn more about United Community. She began to organize Secret Santa for the children of Progreso students and coordinate teacher gifts for her ESL instructors. And as her daughter began elementary school, she became an active volunteer there.
Maria is a connector,” Cristina continued. “CJ of Stepping Stones earned her trust and connected her to resources she needed, and now Maria is connecting others in a similar way.”
United Community programs like Stepping Stones and Progreso are not intended to assist community members indefinitely. Maria does not want to receive assistance forever but is grateful for the help as she works toward a more permanent way of living on her own.
“Assistance provided by Stepping Stones gave Maria more money for her gas tank so she could drive to Progreso for ESL classes,” Cristina said. “She is now working with us to obtain her U.S. citizenship. These actions will provide her with a better chance of succeeding without United Community’s help.”
“United Community’s ability tap into different programs within the agency is VERY unique to our organization,” CJ added. “People come to us for a particular need but in the process of engagement, we find out there are needs to be met. The staff of our multiple programs work together to support clients on their journey to self-sufficiency.”