"Leticia has an uncommon knack for blending visionary thinking with feet-on-the-ground realism. Her remarkable emotional intelligence allows her to intervene in crises with the right degree of warmth and firmness to get girls back on track."
—Bridget Cooke, Executive Director & Co-Founder, Adelante Mujeres
When Leticia Aguilar joined Adelante Mujeres part-time as the Chicas administrative assistant in 2009, she wasn't certain she was cut out for the job.
"I didn't want to be the person that says, 'Do as I say, not as I do," she now says.
At the time, Aguilar was a young, married, pregnant high school graduate who hadn't gone to college and was working the desk at an insurance agency. Her parents—migrants from Mexico to Forest Grove—feared deportation after realizing Aguilar's financial aid applications required a social security number they didn't have.
But she was hired, and after being trained to mentor elementary school girls, Aguilar realized she was indeed meant to serve as a role model for young Latinas. Now, one community college degree, three promotions and six years later, Aguilar serves as the Chicas Youth Development program coordinator.
Adelante Mujeres translates to "empowering women," or "moving women forward." The Forest Grove-based organization does exactly that. Adelante Mujeres served 411 Latina students during the 2014-2015 school year. All 19 of the seniors from last year are currently enrolled in college. Of the elementary and middle school girls, exit surveys show improved self-image, deeper confidence and better grades than Latina counterparts not in the program.
Aguilar, 28, has had her hands in nearly all of this. In six years with the program, she has led nearly a dozen after-school groups. She stuck with one of these groups from third through ninth grade. Her sessions cover topics from alcohol-abuse prevention to STEM to LGBTQ support. Aguilar repeats one particular session with nearly every group she has mentored: "Why you should appreciate your Spanish culture."
"I want them to love who they are, not be ashamed," she says, explaining that her girls often feel they are ugly, unsupported or hated by their peers. The low-income girls Adelante Mujeres serves have working parents, several of them with field labor jobs, according to Aguilar. When they leave school, these girls return home to assist with cooking and cleaning; only then can they attempt their homework.
"Girls come in [to the program] with anger, blaming their parents for things," she says. "But they leave here with a completely different mentality. They begin to appreciate the hard work."
Aguilar is no stranger to the topic of hard work. In addition to mentoring, she takes high schoolers and their parents on college visits, for which she coordinates the transportation and on-campus experience.
"I like taking the girls," she says. "But I like taking the families more. Often times they are afraid to let their daughters go to college. They don't want them to go out of town."
Visits to University of Oregon, Oregon State University, Western Oregon University, Linfield College and PSU usually mean all-day Saturday trips. At Aguilar's urging, colleges facilitate student panels with other minority students, lunch with Latinas attending the school, admissions workshops and dorm tours. Aguilar aims to show parents and girls what helpful services the school can provide.
"We can enroll our girls," she explains. "But then what? Who's going to be there to make them feel connected to the college? That is what I want them to know."
From across a conference table in Adelante Mujeres' second floor office, she explains that many of her Chicas girls view her as "a second mom." She is a mom to two of her own, (ages 7 and 2), a youth soccer coach, wife, daughter and member of Forest Grove's Lions Club.
Does she sleep?
"You get used to it," she says with a shrug and a laugh. "I can't remember what it's like to come home and not do anything."
But doing nothing isn't really Aguilar's style. Her next goal includes finishing a second degree in human development.
"I want to provide more support to the girls and really understand the development stages they are going through," she says.
BOTTOM LINE FOR PORTLAND
Aguilar assists more than 400 Latina girls in Forest Grove annually by providing leadership education, mentorship and college prep.
Leticia's prize is generously sponsored by Grady Britton.