After visiting the United States 25 years ago, Gaby fell in love with the country and its culture. She originally planned just to visit and spend a year here while learning English. After that she would return to work in her home country, Mexico. Only one year was not enough, so she decided she would stay a little bit longer and continue her English language learning. Then life happened: She met and married her husband, they began a family and she ended up staying.
After building a life in the United States over so many years, she did miss her culture and friends, so when a local friend shared a post on a Facebook group about a Latino leadership course being offered in St. Paul, she wondered if she should try it out.
“I was a part of a group on Facebook, a Mexican group, and they were posting classes and information.” Gaby recalls. “I heard about this course [Latino Leadership Program] and I was like, ‘Should I take it? No.’ … I wasn’t very involved with the Latino community here in the United States, so I was like, I don’t know, but maybe I’ll try.”
Gaby went to the first class and realized quickly that it was the right place for her to be. Everyone was friendly, and she was surprised to see how many members of the Latino community were there and also excited to be taking the course.
“For a few years I didn’t know that many Latinos, I didn’t know anyone, so it was a nice connection and the class was really good,” she said. “It just felt like a place to be, it felt like home. The classes were all in Spanish and were well-organized with good subjects, so it felt really good. I loved it.”
The Latino Leadership Program is a newer program for Neighborhood House, created and led by other organizations in the past. The program is for any Hispanic/Latinx people who want to strengthen their skills and connections so they can be more involved in their communities. Because of high demand, LLP usually has a waitlist.
While Gaby was taking classes, she was also a stay-at-home mom. She says she felt the classes helped her get out more, use and apply her skills and talents and make connections and friends, many of whom are still her friends to this day, four years later.
“The class makes you feel more confident about your skills and see that you can be part of a community,” Gaby said. “It was funny because as I started getting closer to people from the class, we started creating our own programs and groups and then put what we learned from the course into action.”
Gaby and a friend from the class went on after the course to start a walking group that grew quickly. She and her friend used the skills they learned from the class to lead the group and help support and grow friendships with the other people in that group as well.
“Because of the interactions that I have had there [in the Latino Leadership Program], I started to know of other organizations and what people were doing for their community. And, I started thinking more on: ‘What can I do?’”
Gaby says she is able to use the skills she learned from the Latino Leadership Program nearly every day. She is now working as an Administrative Director at a local nonprofit on the West Side of St. Paul and also volunteers for Neighborhood House as an assistant in the Latino Leadership classes.
“[Volunteering] is really good, because on some level you are applying what you’ve learned.” Gaby said. “And it’s really fun. It’s fun to see how [the students] are learning and how you see the difference from when people come in, and when people leave and how enlightened their lives are, it is totally different.”
The Latino Leadership Program is a free program that follows a 7-week course with sessions conducted in Spanish. The topics are revolved around leadership styles, teamwork, conflict resolution, and public speaking. During the sessions, students complete learning activities and conduct small group discussions. The ultimate goal is to help individuals make a difference in various places like their schools, communities and neighborhoods.
“[The program] opens your eyes to certain skills, that you probably already have, but you just don’t know it yet.” She said. “It’s like a wakeup call, look at you, you do you have this, you just need to apply it. And you can apply it, it’s not just a commodity, you can apply it with your family, you can apply it at work and it’s going to help you to have a better interaction with other people. You will learn a lot about yourself, because this is a class that makes you reflect about you.”
Gaby says that the class has had a huge positive impact on her life, but not just for herself but also for the new students that she gets to work with as a volunteer.
“The people I’ve told about the program, they come and tell me, ‘oh, thank you for telling me about this program, I love it,’ Gaby remembers. “They tell me that they are now taking level two. So it’s nice to see that reaction. It feels good.”
As a newer program to Neighborhood House, Gaby hopes to see the program continue to grow so that more and more people can take the classes and learn not only the skills to build connections and start something new, but to build the confidence in themselves and grow as individuals as well. The Latino Leadership program has been offered now over one year at Neighborhood House, and there is often a waitlist to take the course. Over the pandemic the course was offered online and there was even more desire for the course. Now, Neighborhood House is hoping to continue to offer both in-person and online methods for the class to cater to the needs of a wider audience.