Archive for March 23, 2018

Diana Acero heads county effort to get the lead out

March 23, 2018 Leave a comment

Diana Acero heads county effort to get the lead out

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico


Diana Acero is squarely focused on helping others as Douglas County Health Department‘s Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program coordinator.

“Having this position has helped me realize how much I enjoy working with people and letting the community know we’re here to help you,” says Acera, who took the job in 2007 after working for One World Community Heath Centers.

Lowering children’s lead levels brings satisfaction. She says, “Then I’m like, Wow, the family really got the message, this child is going to get better, they’re going to be successful in life. We made a difference.”

Lead poisoning is directly linked to developmental and behavioral problems in children. The condition can be symptom-less until a child begins falling behind or acting out in school. It can only be diagnosed through testing.

Using various means Acero informs parents, educators and daycare providers about lead hazards and prevention resources. She also tests children, She, a fellow case manager and allied community health workers visit homes, schools, community centers, Head Start centers and health fairs. Acero finds it hard not personalizing the affected youths she meets.

“These are my children,” she says. “I call them my babies.”

Her passionate work earned her the Heartland Latino Leadership Conference Government Award in 2010.

“It’s nice to be recognized for what you do for the Latino community but it also means you have to do even more — to reach more people, to do more prevention,” she says.

She won’t rest until every child’s tested and childhood lead poisoning is eliminated.

“I’m working for a better Omaha, healthier children, a healthier community.”

Acero and her husband have lived in Omaha since 2000. She came here from her native Bogota, Colombia to learn English at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

She worked in the University of Nebraska Medical Center microbiology department before joining One World as lab technician, Later, as lab coordinator, she grew aware of Omaha’s childhood lead poisoning problem through collaborations with the county lead prevention program, whose then coordinator recommended Acero as her replacement.

Acero’s lab background, bilingual abilities and community-based experience made her a natural choice. Her primary mission is education aimed at prevention. A major challenge is informing people about environmental dangers, whether lead-based house paint (prevalent in homes built prior to 1978) or car and house keys. Some cultural practices introduce additional risks. For example, ceramic bean pots many Hispanics cook with and popular Mexican candies are tainted with lead. Some African refugees eat dirt, risking exposure to lead contaminated soil.

Partnering her efforts is the Omaha Lead-Based Paint Hazard Control Program, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Omaha Healthy Kids Alliance. At-risk families that meet income guidelines may receive home lead abatement assistance from partnering agencies.

Children are referred to local Women and Infant Care or WIC programs for nutrition consultation. Increased calcium and Vitamin C can fight lead poisoning.

A common myth, says Acero, is that lead risks are an inner city issue. “It doesn’t matter where you live. If you let your child play with keys and your child goes to a pinata party where there’s Mexican candy, your child’s’ going to be exposed.” She adds that homes with lead-based paint aren’t confined to east Omaha. That’s why she says, “parents need to be concerned and they need to ask for a test.

Giving back and moving Forward at heart of Sagrario “Charo” Rangel’s life

March 23, 2018 Leave a comment

Giving back and moving forward at heart of Sagrario “Charo” Rangel’s life

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico


A strong work ethic and the value of a good education are two enduring lessons Sagrario “Charo” Rangel carries from her Mexican immigrant parents.

Now in her 25th year with the Omaha Public Schools, the South Omaha native and South High graduate started as a secretary before earning her bachelor’s degree and becoming a classroom teacher. She then went on to obtain her master’s and today is an Educational Accountability Office administrator.

Her work puts her in close contact with Latino youths and families through the Grassroots Leadership Development Program, Bridge to Success and the Latino Academic Achievement Council. She serves as OPS spokesperson on KePadre and Radio Lobo Spanish language stations. Her various efforts brought her the 2010 Heartland Latino Leadership Conference Education award.

“It was a very humbling experience,” she says of the honor. “It inspires me. It tells me I’m doing the right thing and it just gives me motivation to continue.”

She admits she never thought much about higher education or professional development as a young woman. She did, however, graduate from a business school. When OPS needed a bilingual secretary she filled the post.

Later, as a bilingual liaison, Rangel urged students to attend four-year colleges but didn’t feel right not having gone herself. With her colleagues nudging her to broaden her horizons, she decided to act.

“I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by people that believed in me and thought I could aspire to be more,” she says. “They encouraged me and inspired me and motivated me to continue on to college.”

She juggled school with being a mother, a wife and a full-time employee. She commuted from Omaha, first to Peru State College, then Concordia University, and finally Doane College.

“There were times when it was very difficult,” says the former Charo Vacquez. “But I learned from my parents you never give up, you work hard, and you do what you need to do. Those are some strong values and beliefs I carry with me today.”

Her husband’s continued his vocational education and her daughter excels in school.

“I would not have been able to do any of this without the support of my husband and my daughter. There were times when all three of us were at the table doing our homework.”

Classroom teaching fulfilled her.

“It was life-altering for me,” she says. “Our classroom was truly like a family, so what affected one affected all of us.”

Though gut-wrenching to leave the classroom, the prospect of having a greater impact convinced her to enter educational administration.

She says, “There was an opportunity to do some positive things in the community, to really make some changes, and be a part of the process and the team.”

Rangel appreciates now being invited to the decision-making table as a peer leader.

“There’s few Latinos in administrative positions in the Omaha Public Schools and nationwide,” she says. “I love the opportunity to work more with the community and to make more of a difference. It’s a passion I have to help the students and families in our community.”

Her own example, she says, is a lesson to students that “yes you can — don’t give up on yourself. I show my students that if you work hard you will see the rewards.” She enjoys being a mentor to others. It’s her way of “giving back” all that she’s been given.

Mark Martinez Embarks on new chapter in his law enforcement career

March 23, 2018 Leave a comment

Mark Martinez embarks on new chapter in his law enforcement career

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico


Former Omaha Police Department deputy chief Mark Martinez doesn’t make a big deal about it, but he’s part of a long family legacy in law enforcement. He’s added another historic chapter to it in his new post as U.S. Marshal.

He made history as the first Latino captain and deputy chief with the OPD. Now he’s the first Latino to be the U.S. Marshal of the Nebraska District, where he oversees two dozen marshals and a half-dozen administrators. The modest Martinez is aware what his ground-breaking appointment means.

“I just consider it a new challenge,” said the Omaha native. “Certainly I’m blessed, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime. It’s an opportunity to continue public service and to have a hand in law enforcement.”

He’s continuing the tradition of public service his father, Al Martinez Sr., a retired OPD cop, began and that Mark, an uncle, two brothers and several cousins have followed. “It’s a neat thing to think about how quite a few of us ended up in law enforcement,” he said. “We’re proud of our accomplishments and how we have served. My father was always community-oriented, civic-minded, so I think I had an idea I wanted to be a public servant. You’re helping solve problems and making things better. That attracted me to it.”

Martinez’s own community focus has found expression leading the local Latino Peace Officers Association and serving on the Omaha School Board. His U.S. Marshals appointment required he give up his seat on the board.

He went to Washington D.C. in January to be sworn in, culminating a long approval process that reached the desk of President Barack Obama. In February a second swearing-in occurred at the Hruska federal courthouse in downtown Omaha.

In March 2009, Martinez retired after 25 years with the OPD. The South High graduate rose up the ranks — from street officer to sergeant to lieutenant to captain to deputy chief. The Goodrich scholar prepared himself for advancement by earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where be became an adjunct faculty member in criminal justice.

After leaving the force he wasn’t sure what he would do next.

“I hadn’t really thought about continuing in law enforcement. I mean, I always knew that was a possibility but I wasn’t focused narrowly on just wanting to do law enforcement. There were other options out there,” he said.

He worked the security detail of Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle, putting him under the command of his brother, and former OPD cop, Al Martinez Jr.. Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) approached Mark about the four-year U.S. Marshal post. When Martinez expressed interest Nelson recommended him to President Obama, who nominated him to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee.

A September White House press release announcing the nominations of Martinez and other U.S. Marshal candidates referred to their “courageous and selfless dedication to protecting their fellow Americans” and their “relentless…pursuit of justice.” In December Martinez won the approval of the Judiciary Committee. Nelson issued a statement, saying, “Mark Martinez has had a very impressive career in law enforcement which will help him carry out his new duties with professionalism and distinction.”

Martinez appreciates the extraordinary means that placed him in this position.

“Opportunity is the word that jumps out at me, because how many times do you get recommended by the senior senator of your party and then appointed by the President of the United States with the blessing of the Senate Judiciary Committee?”

Besides the prestige, he said “what’s equally attractive” is learning ‘the federal side of things.” That entails much study for the “eager-to-learn” Martinez. “I like challenges, but coming to a new organization is an adjustment, and maybe a little bit uncomfortable sometimes. It’s not a feeling I’ve had for quite a while — that unfamiliarity.”

He attended a three-day orientation in D.C. and anticipates a week-long training in the fall. He acknowledges there are many aspects of the work that can only be learned on the job. He counts himself lucky to have veteran staff around him.

“I really depend on my assistant, Chief Karen Thomas, to teach me about the day to day workings of the U.S. Marshals Service. I remind myself there’s so much I’ve learned in four months. It’s really meaningful to learn about the U.S. Marshals Service, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the federal courts and federal agencies.”

The Marshals Service is the nation’s oldest federal law enforcement agency, tracing its start back to 1789, when the first Congress created it. Martinez said “it’s awesome” being part of a lineage of service that goes back so far. The USMS is closely aligned with the nation’s courts.

“We have numerous responsibilities,” said Martinez. “First and foremost, we guard and protect the federal judicial process at the federal courthouses in Omaha, Lincoln and North Platte. We also protect the court family, including the federal judges and magistrates, the U.S. Attorney’s Office. We guard prisoners, defense attorneys, and anybody and everybody within that court family. We transport prisoners to and from court locally and longer distances.

“We also search out fugitives on federal warrants through a task force made up of local law enforcement and ourselves. We’re involved with the Witness Protection Program. We serve civil process papers and we do asset forfeiture.”

When he permits himself, Martinez marvels at how far he’s come. He’s quick to credit role models who inspired him.

“There’s plenty of people, like my father and Jim Ramirez at UNO, that pioneered not only for themselves but for others, to set an example and say, ‘Hey, you can do it — it takes a little work, but it can be done.'”

This family man — he and wife Cyndi have four children —  is keen to have others follow him, too. He’s aware how much his success mean to the Hispanic/Latino community. “There’s a lot of people who have written me notes and made phone calls and given me hand shakes to say, ‘We’re proud of you, keep up the good work.’ That’s gratifying,” he said.

His alma mater, UNO, recently honored him for his achievements.

He no longer directly serves the southeast precinct he grew up in and policed in and where, he said, “my heart is,” but he remains a man of his people. He hopes law enforcement and the community continue working proactively together.

Categories: Uncategorized

Center for Rural Affairs Outreach Project for Latino farmers and ranchers

March 23, 2018 Leave a comment

Center for Rural Affairs Outreach Project for Latino farmers and ranchers

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in El Perico


The Center for Rural Affairs (CFRA) in Lyons, Neb. is embarking on a collaborative aimed at getting independent Latino farmers and ranchers in Missouri and Nebraska to utilize United States Department of Agriculture aid programs.

The Latino Farmer and Rancher Outreach Project is funded by a $305,000 grant from the USDA’s Outreach Assistance to Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers Competitive Grants Program. The Center’s partnering with: the Cambio Center at the University of Missouri-Columbia; Alianzas, a program of the University of Missouri Extension and the University of Missouri-Kansas City Institute of Human Development; and the Latino Research Initiative at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The geographic focus is Newton and Barry counties in southwest Missouri and Scotts Bluff and Lincoln counties in western Nebraska.

Rafael Martinez, CFRA outreach coordinator for the project, says census data fix the number of Latino ag growers-producers at 35 in the two Nebraska counties. He says the number of operators in the counties has either risen or remained constant compared with declining numbers statewide, The goal is to help existing farmers-ranchers retain, improve or expand operations and help aspiring ag owners enter the field.

He says USDA officials are puzzled why few Latinos participate in USDA programs designed to assist minority ag operators like them. Various loan and cost share programs — for things like terracing, transitioning to organic methods, adding wind turbines, improving efficiencies — are available to qualifying applicants through Farm Service Agency, the Natural Resource Conservation Service and Rural Development.

Underlying the new outreach effort are basic assumptions and questions. For example, Martinez says it’s assumed the reason Latinos don’t take advantage of programs is due to cultural barriers, adding that officials wish to understand what the barriers are in order to devise strategies for overcoming them.

“We are sure they’re not accessing the programs in most cases and we don’t know why not,” says Martinez. “That’s why we’re doing this effort — we want to know. You can list a lot of barriers they might face — certainly the language and the cultural barrier can be huge for recent immigrants.”

But as Martinez points out, not all Latinos are recent emigres with limited English language skills. In some instances, he says, Latino communities, like Scotts Bluff County, are “very well established over generations, so the barriers the farmers and ranchers might face over there could be completely different ones.”

Rodrigo Gamboa, a project consultant, says one barrier may be unfamiliarity with USDA programs and application procedures. Government rules, regulations, protocols and bureaucracy, he says, can be intimidating to the uninitiated. For Spanish speakers, it can be even more daunting. It’s possible some simply don’t know the programs exist. Now through May he’s conducting presentations for Latino stakeholders across the state on USDA programs to get the word out.

Martinez says project team members will canvass the focus counties and use everything from town hall meetings to social networking to knocking on doors to inform and educate farmers. He says UNL’s Latino Research Institute, headed by Miguel Carranza, is developing standardized surveys and interviews for use with subjects, thereby ensuring project members collect and analyze data in the same way.

Strategies for increasing access to USDA programs, Martinez notes, will be part of a document that team members produce and submit to the USDA by year’s end.

“The assumption,” he says, “is that if more Latino farmers and ranchers would access these programs and take the benefits of the programs then they would be more able to stay in their farm-ranch businesses.”

The strategies, says Martinez, will inform the creation of a mechanism for enhancing access and participation through community-based training and networks. He says building and maintaining community trust and links is a priority.

The project is one aspect of the CFRA, a private nonprofit that works to strengthen small businesses, family farms and ranches and rural communities by addressing social, economic and environmental issues. Entrepreneurial opportunities for Latinos can be found through the Hispanic Business Center, which operates under the Rural Enterprise Assistance Project or REAP, and the Siouxland Community Garden Project. Each offers information and education for Latinos already in or looking to get into farming-ranching. There’s also a CFRA program for beginning farmers and ranchers,

CFRA staffer Stephanie Kennedy says listening sessions conducted with rural Latino residents in late 2008 revealed many have ag backgrounds and currently work in ag jobs. She says many expressed a desire to be self-employed in farming-ranching but most did not access relevant USDA programs, an alarming finding in an era when small family farms and ranches keep disappearing.

The annual Nebraska Marketplace, just concluded last week in Kearney, offers another forum for established and aspiring Hispanic entrepreneurs in ag or non-ag businesses.

Categories: Latino/Hispanic

Marisol Rodriguez helps Hispanic businesses grow

March 23, 2018 Leave a comment

Marisol Rodriguez helps Hispanic businesses grow

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico


With professional educators as parents, Marisol Rodriguez and her two siblings grew up in Colombia with the expectation of attending college and embarking on careers of their own.

“Education is a value my parents definitely gave to all three of us,” says Rodriguez, whose hometown is Cucuta, a commercial center bordering Venezuela.

Her work today as director of the Nebraska Business Development Center’s Lincoln (Neb.) Service Center is education-focused. The NBDC is a nonprofit resource for start-up and existing businesses. As service center director she consults with clients about all aspects of business — reviewing business plans, doing cash flow analysis, offering loan application assistance and developing financial projections. She partners with other organizations to present workshops.

NBDC services are free.

To further her professional growth she’s received certification in leadership and management from the NBDC and as an economic development finance professional from the National Development Council.

The bilingual Rodriguez specializes in assisting the Spanish-speaking community in and around Lincoln and Omaha, where she lives, through NBDC and her work as a board member with both El Centro de las Americas and Community Development Resources.

Her support of emerging small businesses led to her being named Heartland Latino Leadership Conference Business Award winner in 2010.

“For me, it’s recognition and commitment.” she says of the honor. “Recognition, because in Colombia I worked with the community and since coming to the United States I have been working with the Hispanic community. Commitment, because it doesn’t stop with winning the award. No, on the contrary it’s to continue working and trying to improve the quality of Hispanic businesses. I can contribute to that.”

She long ago set her sights on doing something in a public service capacity.

Intrigued by numbers, she earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting in her native Colombia. She worked as an accountant before moving to the United States about a decade ago. She and her husband settled in Omaha, where extended family members resided.

She then decided to broaden her skill set by earning an associate’s degree in management information systems at Metropolitan Community College (MCC).

To improve her prospects in the business field she obtained her master’s degree in economics at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She began working with NBDC, a department in the UNO College of Business Administration, while in graduate school.

She says the center’s mission of “helping small businesses to become better” appeals to her. “I really enjoy meeting with clients — business owners or people who want to start small businesses. I really like to share information with them so they have more chances of being successful with their business.”

Since taking up residence in Nebraska she’s noted “the growing” Hispanic business sector here. She’s also noted that more Hispanic entrepreneurs “need to understand the importance of a business plan and the process of starting a business and maintaining a business.” Too often, she says, Hispanics miss out on larger marketplace opportunities by only appealing to Hispanic customers.

If Hispanics are to maximize their business potential, she says, “they must educate themselves,” and that’s where NBDC comes in.

She’s an advocate of entrepreneurs, Hispanic or not, taking advantage of the networking and professional and personal growth opportunities that forums like the Heartland Latino Leadership Conference afford.

Rodriguez, who recently gave birth to her first child, teaches Intro to Entrepreneurship at MCC and a zumba dance fitness class at the La Vista Community Center.

Graciela Sharif’s mission is to empower parents

March 23, 2018 Leave a comment

Graciela Sharif’s mission is to empower parents

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico


When Graciela and Ayman Sharif’s son Nidal was born with Down Syndrome the couple didn’t know how to respond to having a special needs child.

Graciela, a native of Peru, now recognizes she and Ayman went through a cycle of guilt, sadness, anger and, she says, “the loss of dreams.” Little did she know it was the start of her journey as a special needs advocate. Today, as outreach coordinator for Parent Training and Information (PTI) Nebraska, she helps lost parents find their way.

“At first you feel like you’re navigating a foreign land in a foreign language,” she says.

She recalls the first time she and Ayman met with a caseworker they were so hungry for answers and hope they half-way expected a cure.

“This is how desperate parents are for information,” says Sharif. “But she guided us to resources, and from that point I realized we’re going to have to learn this new language. We kept reading books and navigating the Internet and asking questions and visiting other parents.”

While still a stay-at-home-mom she helped create a support group for parents of Down Syndrome children.

“Sharing experiences is the best way to overcome many of our obstacles and to feel better,” says Sharif.

She further educated herself at a PTI workshop. Armed with special needs protection laws, she forced a school district to accept her son at his neighborhood school.

While she and Ayman, a Middle Eastern native, are fluent in English — they met as international students at the University of Nebraska at Omaha — she says parents with minimal English language skills face more obstacles.

“This is why I joined the PTI staff,” she says. “They needed somebody bilngual — who spoke Spanish and English, and who was the parent of a child with a disability and had a college degree. I filled all three requirements.”

She likes the fact PTI services are free.

Additionally, she serves on the Nebraska Advocacy Services board and the Munroe Meyer Institute’s Consumer Advisory board. In her various roles, she says, “I always try to speak on behalf of the Spanish-speaking families. I am their voice.”

Her work earned her the 2010 Heartland Latino Leadership Conference Heath and Human Services award.

“It was an honor,” she says of the recognition. “It told me I’m doing a good job and to keep up the good work. I know the importance of supporting my community.”

She says a cultural stigma makes some Hispanics reluctant to reveal they have a special needs child or reticent to talk about the situation. Her job is identifying families and empowering them to get the help or take the action they need.

“The families and I really connect,” she says. “They trust me. Sometimes they just need to talk. It’s listening to them and crying with them. I know what they’re going through. I always tell parents, ‘We are the teachers. You need to talk about your child’s disability, you need to be involved. You have to get your kid in as many regular education classes as possible — the other kids need to learn from them. It’s for their future.’”

Sharif trained to be an architect, but she’s found a new calling with PTI.

“I love what I do. It enriches me. This is my project in life.”

Once Nidal and his brother Nader complete school, she might pursue a social work degree.

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