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On a hot summer day, a rush of cool air welcomes me into the Center for Nonprofits in downtown Springdale. I wander through the hallways until I spy the sunny logo on an office door. Computers click away as I step into the office. Margarita Solórzano, ushers me into her small office where she directs the Hispanic Women’s Organization of Arkansas.
The Hispanic Women’s Organization of Arkansas (HWOA) is not just for Hispanics or women, Margarita tells me. The mission of the non-profit group is to advance education and opportunities for Hispanic women and their families, celebrate and teach others Hispanic cultures and be active participants in the community.
In Northwest Arkansas in 1999, the Hispanic population was growing. But Hispanics were still often isolated in their workplace and the larger community had very little understanding about Hispanic culture. Margarita and a few others began to meet simply to speak with others in Spanish and share experiences of life in Northwest Arkansas.
The meetings were a success, but Margarita knew she wanted the group to be more than a social gathering. “We needed to find a purpose,” she states softly but firmly. “We decided to promote education first of all, and also try to find opportunities for Latinos to advance.”
The group chose a Cinco de Mayo festival as their first major event. Cinco de Mayo is originally a Mexican holiday commemorating a victory of the Mexican army over France, but in the U.S. it’s taken on the larger role of celebrating Hispanic culture in general. HWOA decided to use its growing popularity to raise awareness of their involvement in the community and, more importantly, to raise money for its first scholarships in pursuit of its goal to advance education.
The festival is held on the first weekend in May at the Jones Center for Families, rain or shine. It is almost entirely volunteer based, from those who set up and clean up to the many performers. HWOA doesn’t charge an entry fee. Instead, they encourage donations to the scholarship fund and also accept sponsorships from local businesses. In 2000, HWOA received three scholarship applications. This year, they received over two hundred. To date, they’ve been able to award 365 scholarships across the state ranging from $500 to $5,000 to graduating high school seniors of Hispanic heritage.
“Our work is worth it,” Margarita says with a smile. She speaks of one student who was one of the first scholarship recipients and now works in Washington D.C. Another just obtained her Ph.D. The majority of the HWOA scholarship recipients are also the first in their families to go to college, another fact Margarita is extremely proud of. She admits choosing recipients from many qualified applicants can be tough, but “if we see a student who will be the first in the family, that can be a priority. We try to help those that need the push, the incentive.”
Advancing educational opportunities is only the first part of HWOA’s mission. “Community integration is an important part of what we do,” Margarita adds. HWOA offers computer and parenting classes at their office in Springdale through their Guiding, Empowering and Mentoring program. Through the program, they’ve assisted over 1800 people in learning computer navigation and programs like Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint and even social media skills.
“When you’ve lived here and gone to school here, you don’t think those are issues,” Margarita says. “It’s not the same in other countries. We know for a fact we have people who were offered better positions but who declined because they couldn’t use a computer.” The classes are offered in Spanish and 33 percent of participants are male, emphasizing that the organization is there for everyone.
Another way HWOA is reaching out to the entire community is through their Reaching for the American Dream program. This program centers on voter registration and citizenship applications. Recently they’ve collaborated with the federal courts and immigration services to bring naturalization ceremonies out of federal buildings and into the community. Several ceremonies have been held at the Jones Center for Families in Springdale. And Margarita reports they’ve seen an increase in the number of people applying for citizenship when these ceremonies are visible. In July, HWOA will assist with a naturalization ceremony held in Shiloh Square in downtown Springdale.
Finally, the Hispanic Women’s Organization of Arkansas brings together their objectives of education and integration into the community through their annual conference. The conference is held in the fall and features national speakers on current issues within the community. Last year’s conference included sessions on civic engagement, youth education, women and politics. Like the scholarship program, the annual conference has grown from a few dozen in attendance to over 500 parents, students, educators, legislators and professionals attending each year.
“Our community is changing,” Margarita says, “and we all are learning to adapt, to participate, and to have more sense of community. It’s not the Latino community or the Anglo community – we are one community. It’s everybody working to make a better community.” From those first few meetings in 1999 to now, the group has come a long way in impacting both the community and the state.
The Hispanic Women’s Organization of Arkansas is headquartered in Springdale. For more information, visit their website at www.hwoa.org or in person at the Center for Nonprofits at the JTL Shop. Classes are held year round and the annual conference will be Sept. 30, 2016.
Photos courtesy of HWOA and used with permission.
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