NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Aguilar runs two of the 14 Adelante Chicas after-school programs and has been promoted to the programs coordinator. In Michoacan, Mexico, Leticia Aguilar grew up in a violent neighborhood often with not enough food and a poor education. Her family was once robbed by gang members and a brother was almost kidnapped.

But the hardest time in her life came in a surprisingly safe place: at Hillsboro’s Poynter Middle School, which she entered at the age of 12. Unable to speak English, not knowing the culture and wearing hand-me-down clothes, the “new girl” drew snickers and stares.

“I don’t think they realized how much that hurt,” Aguilar said.

Now 28, Aguilar uses those tough years as fuel for her work at the Forest Grove nonprofit Adelante Mujeres, where she can relate to the young women she mentors. Aguilar was recently promoted to program coordinator of the Chicas Youth Development Program, which aims to empower young Latina girls through after-school programs and individual mentoring that promotes healthy lifestyles, self-confidence and educational achievement.

Tuesday evening, Nov. 3, Aguilar accepted Willamette Week’s annual Skidmore Prize, which recognizes metropolitan Portland residents committed to nonprofit work.

“When I first learned about the Skidmore Prize, I thought of Lety immediately,” said Gini Petersen, Adelante’s director of development and outreach and the person who nominated Aguilar for the prize.

“She is an extremely talented person and could choose lots of different career paths. She has chosen a career with Adelante Mujeres because of her personal commitment to the struggles of low-income immigrant families.”

Adelante runs the Chicas program in 14 different sites in western Washington County and keeps a waiting list.

When she first started working at Adelante, Aguilar was shocked at her co-workers’ passion for supporting the Latino community. “I was like, ‘Wow, somebody who wants the best for all of us and who’s doing all they could to empower Latinos — and you’re not even Latino.’”

Tough times

In Mexico, Aguilar’s dad used to leave for weeks to look for work and come home with little money, sometimes not enough to feed his wife and six children.

Aguilar herself worked for a rich woman in town to help her family subsist. The woman paid her five pesos and a small jug of milk to clean her home.

Aguilar’s father first came to live and work in America on his own, sending money back to his family in Mexico. But knowing they were living alone in a dangerous neighborhood and still struggling even with the meager funds he sent back, he came back to bring them to America.

In Hillsboro, Aguilar’s father found work at a nursery. With her mom leaving early in the morning and returning late at night, working two janitorial jobs for a department store and the Forest Grove School District, Aguilar — the oldest daughter — found herself the female head of the household. She packed her dad’s lunch, changed her siblings’ diapers and made dinner for her family.

In school, she felt alone. She missed the friends she’d left behind, the brick home her father built, their mango and plum trees, their horses and cows.

While her early teen years were miserable, Aguilar is now grateful to her parents for giving up their family and friends in Mexico to give her and her siblings a chance at a better life.

Struggling in school

Most people who grew up in Michoacan, like her parents, received only an elementary school education, Aguilar said, so she was behind when she started seventh grade in America. She couldn’t understand her teachers. She didn’t know anyone.

Aguilar eventually befriended her neighbor, who explained Aguilar’s homework to her and translated what her teachers said.

After Aguilar’s family moved to Cornelius and she transferred to Forest Grove High School, she tested out of English as a Second Language classes, but still didn’t understand a lot of what her teachers said. She even struggled in Spanish classes because she was so unfamiliar with formal grammar and spelling.

She took solace in math class, where there was no language barrier and she got good grades.NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - After working in insurance after high school, Leticia Aguilar applied to work at Adelante Mujeres so she could work with youth.

In high school, Aguilar passed all her classes but never thrived. She had more friends, but wasn’t involved in school activities. While other students went to parties, basketball games and club meetings, she worked at a Hillsboro assisted living center serving meals and cleaning after school and on weekends. She added her earnings to the family money pool.

Her parents had little time to keep track of Aguilar’s education and couldn’t attend parent-teacher conferences because they were working multiple jobs, she said.

“During those years I don’t recall ever having a school counselor, mentor or adult guiding me through my education or career path,” Aguilar wrote on her Skidmore Prize nomination form.

Nevertheless, she went on to earn an associate’s degree in organizational dynamics from Warner Pacific College.

Even mom gets involved

Now Aguilar works to give others the mentorship she missed, inspiring the more than 400 girls who have enrolled in the Chicas program over the past few years — 100 percent of whom have graduated high school and gone on to pursue higher education.

Aguilar started mentoring many of them when they entered the program in third grade, shy, looking at the floor, able to speak only Spanish and just trying to fit in. Nearly seven years later, she sees their confidence radiating in high school. She sees young wo-men who are proud of their culture and motivated to accomplish.

“I wish I would have had the [Chicas] program to motivate me to do things,” Aguilar said. Most of her mentees volunteer, participate in sports or drama and are active in Adelante activities.

She’s adopted this attitude in her own life as well. Aguilar serves as the vice president of the Lions Club and volunteers with Salvation Army and SOLV to name a few. She brings her sons to participate in Adelante’s childhood development programs and makes sure her oldest gets to his soccer games. “I’ve been able to learn so much about being able to help others more and being a better mom,” Aguilar said.

For many Chicas, the program provides a family-like structure and strong female role models for those who need them, such as one girl whose mother was deported to Mexico and then died.

“Leticia is the quintessential role model,” said Bridget Cooke, Adelante’s executive director. “The girls she works with love, respect and emulate her, and she provides guidance grounded in possibility and hard work.”

Aguilar not only works with the girls, but their families as well. She encourages them to be a part of their children’s education and helps them understand the grading system. “It’s more than just dropping kids off at school and picking them up,” Aguilar said.

Aguilar’s sister, who is now in high school, has been a Chica for years. Aguilar’s mom now works to support her in the program. “When I first heard my mom was organizing one of our fundraisers I couldn’t believe it,” Aguilar said.

“Since I have been part of the Chicas program, I have learned to have confidence in myself, feel proud of who I am, where I come from, and that I can achieve anything that I set my mind to,” said Maria Aguilar, Leticia Aguilar’s sister.

It can be difficult to balance work, volunteer commitments, motherhood and family life, but “there hasn’t been a day when I’ve said, ‘I don’t want to go to work,’” Aguilar said.

She’ll donate a portion of the $5,000 Skidmore Prize money to Adelante’s youth scholarship fund and plans to return to Warner Pacific College to earn her bachelor’s degree in human development.

“I never stopped to think the work I am doing is having such a great impact,” Aguilar said. “When I hear it from others, I’m like, ‘Whoa, I’m doing all that for these girls?’ I feel like they bring so much joy to my life.”

Stephanie Haugen
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