The spirit of giving back was instilled into Martha Alvarez-Taylor at a young age due to her mother, who was always helping others in their native Colombia. Her mother’s acts of kindness are why Martha is currently driven to volunteer herself to support those going through hardship. However, the path to getting to where she is wasn’t without hardship of her own. Over two decades ago, Martha immigrated to the United States with her one-year-old son. She took hours of English classes each week for a year in order to learn the language, and worked multiple jobs, from nannying to working in a warehouse, in order to make her way back to her previous career as an engineer.
After working tirelessly to achieve her goals, Martha is now giving back to women in need. She is a committee member for Women2Women, which helps women in Berks County, Pa. foster career advancement and leadership. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Martha helped plan events as well as work as a translator for the area’s Spanish-speaking population. Martha has since moved from Pennsylvania to Texas, but due to the pandemic forcing Women2Women to work virtually, she is still continuing to help out with translation and the motivational conversations that the organization is hosting online. Martha also continues to volunteer virtually for Schuylkill Women in Crisis, a nonprofit that helps those impacted by domestic violence or sexual abuse within Schuylkill County, Pa. Martha is on the Board of Directors and also chairs the organization’s Diversity Committee.
Describe your volunteer role with Women2Women.
I’m a committee member. Across generations and people, we’re trying to educate them, promote them, teach English to them, give them an opportunity for them to succeed. We have a lot of small business owners and — we used to do this in person [pre-COVID] — we mingle people so they can connect, and help them with loans or banks or education or certifications they may need. We are an outreach between all of those sources for them. As a part of the committee, we work together to finalize any details of any activity we do. We used to have a monthly meeting where we invited a [guest.] It could be a motional speaker, or someone teaching how to do a resume. We coordinate those activities and the logistics to get that event done successfully. Then my role within the committee was sometimes to translate the communications from English to Spanish, because we tried to cover all the populations. In Reading, Pa., there are a lot of Spanish-speaking people. Then if that was the case, [translating] was my role on the committee.
When did you start volunteering here and what inspired you to do so?
That was in 2017. Initially they contacted me, because I went to another meeting and somebody heard my story [of how] I came to this country. I left my country and have had ups and downs to get my life back. Somebody invited me to go to the meetings, and later they invited me to be a speaker for them. After speaking, they invited me to be a part of Women2Women. I went once and I liked what I saw, and I started from there. I raised my hand to be part of the committee to try to do more than only be an attendee or just go to participate as a guest. I always liked to volunteer. I always saw my mom giving away the little things we had to others. I thought to myself, if I can give something back after I restarted my career, [then I want to do so], because I had to start my life again here in this country. I didn’t know English, and 20 years ago it was hard for the immigrants, unlike nowadays where you will find everything easier for them to translate something into Spanish. I went through a lot, going through English school and getting my degree and starting my career again in this country. That was part of what we liked to do, giving back, so ever since I was motivated to participate.
Describe your volunteer role with Schuylkill Women in Crisis.
I am part of the Board of Directors. I was motivated to lead the Diversity Committee because the area of Schuylkill County is more white people, but a lot of Hispanic people have been moving into the area. Once again, because of my struggles, I wanted to give back. I was in a meeting also and somebody approached me if I wanted to participate with them because they saw my career. I got involved with them because I saw a lot of Hispanic women in the area being abused. Don’t get me wrong, [abuse can happen to] any race, but we saw a lot of the Black community and Hispanic community struggling. I said OK, I will be able to do that. I started the Diversity
Committee to see if we could do more especially for getting resources to help the women. That group is 90 percent women in the area, but we also have 10 percent men. Abuse is not only for women. We have a little bit of men who we help also.
[I helped] look for contacts to get money. … Then [helped with] any contact, going to talking to lawyers, and helping to translate for them. If they needed company if they went to a judge, I can keep them company. Not legal advice, because we don’t offer that, but at least be with them for a sense of comfort when they go to present to the judge with their case work. That was my role.
Why was volunteering in a way that helps empower women important to you?
I went through all of those things … restarting my life, and I didn’t have anyone to help me. I do this because of my mom. She was a very giving person and I saw her satisfaction by giving back. I think that grew out of me, that if I was able to help somebody, any little, tiniest change in somebody’s life, even if just for a moment, it is very satisfying for me. I wanted to give back. If I’m fortunate enough now to work in my profession and have some stability and be OK, I think it is important for to me to give back. I was in another organization in Colombia and Philadelphia when I used to live in Philadelphia, doing the same types of activities. To have the opportunity, that’s the reason I do it. If I can change or help somebody, that would be good.
What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?
My most rewarding part is after I help somebody and they say “I made it,” whatever “made it” is — maybe understanding English, or getting into a class, or getting their GED. That is very rewarding to me, that they can do it. That moment when people realize, Oh, with all the hard work I did, I was able to accomplish whatever it is they wanted to do at that moment.
What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer?
You learn through the people who you help. Everyday you can learn something. Even if it’s small — maybe to cook something, “Oh, I never thought I could cook something like this,” or this [legal] process a lawyer taught me. I think that the learning process is daily, if you are up to that. You have to open your mind to see what is out there and see how the people are struggling. Even the people you are [volunteering] with in those organizations can bring something and teach you something. That’s the way I see it.
What do you want people to learn from your story?
My message I always say is with perseverance, you can do whatever you want to do in life. For me, it was to come to this country, work different kinds of jobs until I was able to work as an engineer again, and learn the language. It’s important. We left our home countries and we need to live and learn English to become whatever we want to become. I always say perseverance helps you to bring yourself whatever you want. It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it at the end.
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