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Sonia Martinez and Tony Colon cofounded the Mohawk Valley Latino Association (MVLA) in 2003, working with likeminded community members to create an organization with a mission and vision to educate and empower the area’s Latino community.

“We started the organization, as Tony likes to say, at my kitchen table,” said Martinez.

Martinez was born in the Dominican Republic and came to the United States at age 13 with her father and two siblings in search of a better life. She didn’t speak English, but learned quickly. From an early age, she understood the language barrier that most immigrants face when they come to America—and the continuing need for education as a path to success.

“With education comes better skills, better social skills, life skills, and a future for our children,” Martinez says. “It’s important that our community feels empowered, that they see themselves in the community, to feel a part of the community and to feel that whatever they set their mind to they can do it. Just like I did.”

For almost 18 years, MVLA has focused on providing services to the Latino community to enhance their quality of life. The organization helps newly arrived families with the language barrier, employment, housing, food, social service benefits, healthcare and even citizenship. MVLA lets people know what’s going on in the community and keeps them informed about how they can overcome challenges, helping them become better people and better community members.

As it has for everyone in the community, the global pandemic has taken its toll on local Latinos, with many businesses closed and jobs lost. The biggest needs now are food insecurity, rent assistance and health issues.

“A lot of people have had to stay home. Not knowing what to do or where to go if they start having COVID-19 symptoms,” says Martinez. “Throughout the last few months, the challenge has shifted to vaccine education and helping vulnerable populations sign up for the vaccine.”

To address these rising emergency needs, MVLA and First Circle have launched La Abundancia, a planned communal space and garden in the Cornhill neighborhood. This project will be a place where people can grow healthy food, cook, eat, find community support, and celebrate community and tradition together. Along with helping people of all ages, La Abundancia will pay special attention to engaging and supporting people of color as everyone adapts to a society emerging from the pandemic.

Martinez has always adapted to make the future of the organization brighter, and the Community Foundation has helped. MVLA has been awarded more than $40,000 to support organizational needs and purchase supplies, including personal protective equipment. With a rapid increase in the number of families needing assistance, the funding will also help vulnerable residents—especially those facing greater challenges because of COVID-19, ensuring that nobody is left behind during the pandemic.

COVID-19 forced the organization to go virtual; in January, MVLA hosted an Upstate Latino Summit workshop via Zoom. The event focused on community advocacy and engagement, encouraging participants to get involved in issues and causes important to them. A follow-up virtual workshop focused on immigration, with migrant advocates and attorneys updating attendees on the status of immigration reform, occurred in March.

MVLA also received Community Foundation funding to help victims of the Puerto Rico earthquakes find a place to live, rent assistance, and basic necessities like food and furniture. “It’s been amazing,” Martinez says. “When I envision what I want MVLA to be, it’s a welcoming center for new families that feel like they’re not getting the help in their own country. They come here and it’s amazing to them. I have so many families that have shed tears of thanks and happiness. We still strive to continue to have those kinds of moments with new families.”

Martinez says the families MVLA has helped over the years are the reason she goes to work every day, especially the impact the organization can have on their lives. “There was this one young couple that came here, and every time I think about it, I shed a tear. They came here with nothing and now they have a beautiful baby that they’re raising in Utica in a beautiful apartment.”

And then there was the mother and young son who arrived from the Dominican Republic years ago. Martinez helped them find a place to live. Time passed, and the little boy graduated from the police academy—becoming Utica’s first officer from the Dominican Republic. And he made sure Martinez was at the graduation ceremony.

“His mother and I, we cried so much because he was such a shy little boy, and to see him in a uniform was amazing,” Martinez recalls. “Whenever he sees me, he gives me a hug and a ‘thank you.’ He says, ‘I’m here because of you.’”

After nearly 20 years and countless stories like these, MVLA continues to empower and educate families in need and provide the tools the Mohawk Valley’s growing Latino community needs to succeed.

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