A common assumption holds that successful people set specific goals, create plans, and carefully orchestrate their success. For some, this might be true, but, for others, success happens after life places them along a winding path.
Gloria Vázquez Merrick, executive director of the Latino Hispanic American Community Center, was born in a little alley in Harrisburg—Honey Street. Her father immigrated to the United States in 1951 from Puerto Rico after being recruited by a prominent construction company.
“It was common to come [to the United States] to make money and then send for your family,” she said.
The family moved to Market Street, the first Latino family on the street. This would be one of her many firsts.
She worked odd jobs as a Bishop McDevitt High School student—at Rudy’s Market and the St. Francis Roman Catholic Church’s rectory. In her senior year, she received an opportunity that would direct her whole life. The Governor’s Office of Administration sought high school graduates who were not headed directly to college. Vázquez Merrick took a clerical position, which eventually led her to work for the Pennsylvania Commission for Women.
“It empowered me to learn and to obtain a lot of self-help for myself, which actually pivoted me towards my future direction, building my confidence, my positive self- image,” she said.
This growing confidence allowed her to accept an opportunity at the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. In her 13 years at PennDOT, she developed an English class for the clerical pool, formed the first foreman academy and created the department’s first new employee orientation program.
Later, she returned to the governor’s office as director of management development. While there, she was invited to participate in the Leadership Development Institute for Women in State Government, a program where she became the director.
“I was never one to be always looking and looking,” she said. “People would find me and call me, and I never said no. I was always up for a new challenge.”
In 2006, after facilitating the Latina Health Summit, she was approached by the Department of Health to work with then-Deputy Secretary of Health Robert Torres.
Vázquez Merrick cites her willingness to take chances as key to her accomplishments.
“You don’t know how many times I went into territory I had never known anything about,” she said.
She had confidence in her ability to perform “because I knew that I had those embedded, transferrable skills that could take me from an executive leadership development arena to now a health arena.”
She left work at the commonwealth in 2007.
“I thought I could just relax and have a nice time and breathe and enjoy life and break out all my cookbooks,” she said. “I wanted to do some traveling and spend some time with my daughter.”
As with most of Vázquez Merrick’s transitions, another opportunity soon found her.
She was offered a position on the board of the new Latino Hispanic American Community Center (LHACC). When the executive director took leave in 2011, she assumed the post.
“I thought—I’ve done a full circle back to where I was born, in my community where I grew up,” she said. “And now I’ll take everything that I’ve learned, everything that I did and all those skills, and bring them to fruition by way of working for the Latino Hispanic American community.”
Program development experience proved integral to her work at LHACC. Youth participate in the newly formed Leadership Institute Star Training Opportunity, while senior citizens have the Sharing Wisdom Program. These programs involve reciprocity. Seniors benefit from the program when youth show them proper use of their cell phone and other technology; youth benefit from the years of wisdom shared by the seniors.
Work at LHACC includes creating a bridge between cultures, embracing diversity.
“The richness of those cultures is very important because you grow as a person, you grow intellectually,” she said. “You grow spiritually by experiencing other cultures.”
Vázquez Merrick also noted that the center offers an opportunity for Hispanics to connect and be informed about their own culture. Not all Hispanic cultures are alike, and she said that Hispanic American Heritage Month offers an opportunity for Latinos to “learn about the diversity in the diversity.”
Running an organization like LHACC is not without its difficulties. Recently, the city denied the center Community Development Block Grant funds, which has made up one-fifth of its budget.
“We are now struggling with how we are going to meet the huge void that we are going to begin to feel come October,” she said.
Vázquez Merrick speaks of her achievements nonchalantly, but she said that, each time she took on a new position, she thought, “What am I doing? I can’t do this.”
She credits her many mentors—whom she describes as the voices in the back of her head—with encouraging and empowering her. So, now she shares this advice to others: “Don’t be afraid to go into the area of the unknown because that’s how you grow.”
The Latino Hispanic American Community Center (LHACC) is located at 1301 Derry St., Harrisburg. For more information, visit www.lhacc.org.
LHACC’s Hispanic Heritage Kick Off Festival takes place Sept. 10, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., on Derry Street between 13th & 14th streets in Harrisburg.