A volunteer gives back after the “blessing” of help

There are all sorts of reasons immigrants come to America. Some flee violence, oppression, or poverty. Others want to reunite with family here.

Maria Esther Rodriguez emigrated from her native Dominican Republic 15 years ago because of her husband.

“He decided to come to the United States, because he was seeking better opportunities, and I had to be where my husband was,” Maria explained.

But marital troubles led to divorce, and Maria found herself alone in a foreign country with no family, friends, or job – a predicament made tougher by her inability to speak English. She reached out to Catholic Charities, Diocese of Trenton’s Community Services in Lakewood.

Community Services offers food, clothing, job-skills training, financial aid, immigration services, and other basic-needs assistance to people in crisis. With bilingual staff, the office is a go-to referral for vulnerable people who shoulder the added burden of a language barrier.

At Community Services, Maria connected with program director Carmen Pagan and Family Reunification Program Coordinator Marilyn Zeno, bilingual staffers who referred Maria to divorce services in the community and signed her up for Community Services’ food pantry, ESL classes, and immigration assistance to pursue citizenship.

A success!

“We were able to get her food, furniture, and other support,” Pagan (pictured left, with Maria) said. “She really needed a social group, because she was removed from her whole family. Here, she found a place to talk to people and get the referrals she needed, and from there, she’s been a success!”

Maria agreed: “I’m so happy now. God used Marilyn Zeno and Carmen Pagan in a potent way with me. I was in a very bad situation, and I received a blessing from God by coming here.”

After she got back on her feet, Maria landed a job in a nursing home, where she worked for 10 years before retiring.

Now 66 and a grandmother of three, she was so thankful for the help she got at Community Services that she became a dedicated volunteer there, both to give back and to sharpen her English-speaking skills. She volunteers in the food pantry, serves as an interpreter when needed, and learned how to navigate the computer system when Community Services automated its records.

Volunteering, Maria said, “feels marvelous. This is what I most enjoy doing. It moves me emotionally to know that I can give my time and energy to others.”

Maria recently became a U.S. citizen, and her two grown sons live here now and are pursuing their citizenship. She now has her sights set on a new goal – getting her driver’s license. Pagan has no doubts she’ll do it. “This woman can learn anything – she could fly a plane in a week, I think,” Pagan laughed.

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For more information: Carmen Pagan, program director of Community Services of Ocean County, at cpagan@cctrenton.org or (732) 363-5322 ext. 3232; or Dana DiFilippo, Catholic Charities communications, ddifilippo@cctrenton.org or (609) 394-5181, ext. 1153.

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