When talking with LHACC’s executive director, Gloria Vazquez Merrick, her confident yet warm demeanor immediately puts you at ease. You get the sense she is the type of woman you can sit down with, share family stories and talk for hours over a cup of tea and homemade cheese. Her accomplishments and impressive professional resume speak volumes about her dedication and tenacity to do “whatever it takes” to get the job done. Yet, after years serving in the government sector, this daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants, wife and mother of two stepped out of the state-government spotlight and is now in the nonprofit arena and putting all of her efforts into her heart’s passion: giving back to the community from where she was born in a tiny “House on the Hill” in Harrisburg’s Allison Hill section.
LV: Your list of accomplishments is both awe-inspiring and admirable, as is your back story. Please give us a brief history on your background?
GVM: I am a native of Allison Hill, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Harrisburg. My family migrated to Allison Hill from Puerto Rico at a time when companies would travel to Puerto Rico to recruit strong, healthy men to work in the booming construction industry. After my parents settled here, I was born in a small house at 14 Honey Street, which is now a desolate lot. My mother feared going to a hospital since she did not know English and had no family here except my small brothers and sister. All of us children went to St. Francis of Assisi. However, my earliest recollection of going to a Spanish church service was at St. James in Steelton. We were fortunate that my father’s construction skills helped “barter” our way through St. Francis, and later all six of us children attended Bishop McDevitt High School from where I graduated.
I worked in a deli during high school and then as a housekeeper at the St. Francis rectory, until I received a call for an interview at the Governor’s Office of Administration for a clerical position. I worked hard and had a few good mentors who respected my work and encouraged me to advance. Eventually, I made a full circle back to the Governor’s Office to head up programs including the Commonwealth Management Development Program. Upon graduating from the Commonwealth’s Leadership Development Institute (LDI) for Women in State Government, I was requested to become its director and managed the Commonwealth’s Management Intern Program. I was responsible for recruiting recent master’s degree candidates to come and work in Pennsylvania state government. I am proud of my recruits, which exceeded 100 and included Eugene DePasquale, who later went on to become Pennsylvania’s State Auditor General; Jeff Wallace, current executive director of the State Civil Service Commission; and many others who became successful public servants. During this time, I met and worked with several directors of the Governor’s Advisory Council for Latino Affairs (GACLA), under the auspices of the Governor’s Office, which included Pedro Cortes, and Norman Bristol Colon. Prior to leaving state government in 2008, Robert Torres, our current LHACC board president, and I worked together at the Pennsylvania Department of Health, where I was able to continue working on policy and advocacy matters that impacted the Latino Hispanic American community.
After retiring from the public sector, I was requested to join the first Latino Hispanic American Community Center (LHACC) board in charge of helping finalize plans for the new Latino Hispanic American community center. It was a great honor to join the many community leaders who laid the groundwork for the founding of LHACC, among those, Hector Ortiz, Michelle Brogna, Yolanda Perez, Mark Kogan and many others. While on the board, in July, 2011, I was tapped to serve as executive director of the center following Carlos Lopez. Having been born three blocks from the center made it appealing for me to accept the position. Many ideas flourished in my mind as to how I might help the community where I once grew up. I sensed a heartfelt calling to assist ‘my’ community. While working, I never lost sight of completing my college degree, and graduated with distinction from Eastern University with an emphasis on management studies.
LV: That is quite a back story. Are you married and do you have children?
GVM: Yes, I am married – my husband’s name is Rick. My daughter, Marialana, is a recording artist and graduates in May from Loyola University in Baltimore with a major in communications, digital media/public relations. My son, Stephen, graduated from Elizabethtown College and is a digital marketing manager. They are the glue that helps me hold it all together.
LV: What do you find most rewarding about your position as LHACC’s executive director?
GVM: It is very rewarding to be in a position where I can influence and impact the Latino Hispanic American community in a positive way. Having come from a family of similar circumstance at a very young age, I can relate to the added challenges many of our clients face when they make a “cold call” to the center for assistance. When our organization helps someone find work, register their children for school, learn how to use the public transportation system and help better themselves, it is very rewarding. We know when they show up soon after with a hot “café,” a plate of homemade rice and beans or an empanada, that is their way of saying thank you for a job well done – it’s a good feeling.
LV: Can you give an example of a story that touched you and your team with regard to both the senior and children’s programs at LHACC?
GVM: We held a focus group in late 2011, where older participants expressed feeling left out. With the assistance of Highmark, and the TFEC Foundation, who provided funding for our 50-and-over program start up, we began to hold monthly sessions revolving around health and wellness, education and recreation. In 2012, with the help of Dr. Luquis and Patty Aguilera from Penn State, we obtained assistance to help institutionalize the program. It is still a work in progress; however, we offered a health and wellness certificate opportunity to the new recruits referred by our case manager. We said that anyone who attended seven health and wellness sessions received a graduation certificate. When we handed out the certificates, it was a very touching moment to watch each recipient pose for pictures holding them. They proudly boast that those photos are prominently displayed in their homes for all to see.
LV: Tell us about your team and how they affect the success of this program.
GVM: As executive director, I am responsible for overall management operations, program development, implementation and seeking funding. I rely on our fully bi-lingual front office intake team comprised of Edgar, Myra and Maria to ensure our daily walk-ins, new and repeat clients’ basic human and case management needs are being met. Our bi-lingual culturally competent and friendly team successfully makes clients feel that LHACC is a place where they can come for referrals or services. This includes clients seeking employment, ESL, food, clothing, housing referrals, translations, health needs, school registrations and more. This past year, LHACC provided over 5,000 services to both new and repeat clients from throughout the capital region. We also have a board of directors that provides oversight. The United Way of the Capital Region is the greatest supporter of our Intake/Referral and Case Management. The Dauphin County Commissioners, the City of Harrisburg and sponsors on our website all impact LHACC’s success as well.
LV: What future plans do you have for the organization? Are you accepting volunteers?
GVM: We have many plans in the works for LHACC that I am very excited about. We are looking to expand the senior program titled “Sharing Wisdom;” instituting our Youth Leadership program and expanding our case management capacity. LHACC has plans to advance technologically and hold regular computer classes for our 50 and over program participants. We are also implementing programs focused on improving quality of life and life skill enhancement for families. Yes, we are always looking for volunteers who want to help make a difference in our community. We’ve had great success with Cedar Cliff High School’s Spanish AP students, who come to LHACC to fulfill their Spanish class requirements. The students get to practice their Spanish and work on projects at the center. Harrisburg High students Marialisa, Wendy and Sergio have completed their senior projects at LHACC. Also, college students from Penn State, the McCann School of Business at Harrisburg University, Lebanon Valley College and Elizabethtown College have completed course work here and/or participated in special projects. It is always a win-win for both the students and LHACC.
LV: Is it is easy to grow attached to some of the people who attend these programs?
GVM: Yes, I have become close to many of the participants in the senior program and many of the volunteers like Megan, Kirsten and Joe from Cedar Cliff. A previous volunteer, Agapito, stopped by last month to say thank you for the opportunity we gave him at LHACC, which also allowed him to graduate from the McCann School of Business in time. He gave me a hug and said, “I am moving to Florida but did not want to leave town without saying thanks and goodbye.” We had previously given him a signed photograph of him with our team. He told us it was one of the first things he packed. So, you see, even though we help clients every day, it is just as rewarding when we can help students and others who are drawn to “the hill” to serve others. As for our clients, just this week, Edgar, our case manager, shared a story about a client he assisted with multiple needs. The parent wanted assistance because their child does not want to go to school. We were able to make a connection with the school counselor, interpret and discuss the situation and set up an appointment. The client also obtained food assistance and was referred for a free health screening. Since we are a bi-lingual staff, people feel welcome to come to LHACC to assist with a variety of needs that they cannot communicate comfortably elsewhere. We assist every person who comes through our doors; however, due to the cultural proficiency of our staff, for approximately 70 percent of our clients, Spanish is their first language.
LV: Complete this sentence: “LHACC is a place where…”
GVM: LHACC is a place where individuals feel comfortable coming for help in a culturally competent environment that will stabilize an immediate need or provide long-term case management assistance in a proficient manner. Beyond the intake services, our “over 50” and youth programs now add another dimension in that we are providing educational, leadership, health/wellness, quality of life skills and recreational opportunities to our clients and the greater community.
LV: What would you like to most be remembered for with regard to your position at LHACC?
GVM: When I am long gone, I hope people remember Gloria Vazquez Merrick as a dedicated public servant who made a difference in the lives of the “haves” and the “have nots” – that she touched either as a long-term public servant in state government, or through her dedication to the Latino Hispanic American Community Center and the community it serves.
LHACC’s mission is to empower, promote and advocate for the Latino Hispanic American community of the greater Harrisburg area by offering inclusive services that will be strength – based, collaboration oriented and solution focused. LHACC’s vision is to be a “one stop shop” that can attend to all of our community’s human and social service needs. This will be accomplished through close partnerships with organizations that already provide services and by developing and providing programs that cater to the unmet needs in the area. Call (717) 232 8302 or go online to lhacc.org.