It all began 16 years ago with a picnic on a sunbaked summer afternoon in Steelton.
Hispanic immigrants were beginning to stream into the Harrisburg area, but were finding that central Pennsylvania definitely wasn’t Central America. Thus, a few people organized Estamos Unidos de Pennsylvania—“We Are United”—reflecting a desire to preserve their Latin roots and fulfill unmet needs in their new country.
EU’s first picnic was held in Emeric Cibort Park, featuring tacos, rice, enchiladas and salsa dancing, marking the arrival of a new immigrant group in an area once synonymous with the culture of steel, polka and hearty Croatian meals.
Sixteen years later, this celebration has become an intrinsic part of Steelton’s culture, so much so that members of government, emergency services, academia, health care and other community organizations joined the throngs who recently gathered for food, face-painting, games and music. It was a “sweet 16” celebration for a powerhouse group of volunteers who have given so much over the years.
For evidence of success, one need look no further than EU’s new president, Amanda Batista-Brgulja.
The 28-year-old was once a struggling student at CD East. But she became an EU volunteer and a scholarship recipient who went on to earn a master’s degree in public administration.
Batista-Brgulja, who now works in the Dauphin County Judicial Center in Halifax, said everyone on the board has a niche. She and Treasurer Maria Tran share a criminal justice bent. Immediate past president, Dr. Patricia Silveyra, was focused on steering Hispanics toward careers in science.
While the group may have a relatively small number of official, dues-paying members, they can tap into 200 to 400 volunteers at each major event, Batista-Brgulja estimated.
Case in point: about eight years ago, the group’s annual Christmas party was short about 600 toys. A rescue came from then-Dauphin County Republican Party Chairman John McNally, who enlisted the aid of the Republican State Committee. Together, they donated more than 1,000 toys.
McNally, who attended this year’s picnic, said he brings his three young children each year to help set up tables and wrap gifts for the Christmas party.
“It is about making other people feel special,” he said.
That sentiment pervades the group’s culture.
This year’s parking attendant at the picnic was a straw-hatted Dr. Oralia Dominic, an assistant professor of public health sciences at Penn State’s College of Medicine and a past president of EU.
She said the annual picnic replicates the plaza of any quintessential town in Central or South America, which typically features a church and a town square, where boys meet girls, kids play soccer and get ice cream, and moms come to chat.
Dominic, a leader in diabetes education, became involved in EU after she received the group’s Multicultural Citizenship Award in 2009. She said that, to her, the takeaway is quite simple.
“You don’t have to abandon your ancestry and cultural beliefs and attitudes and influences to become a leader,” she said.
McNally added that EU has a “strong record of educating the community about resources. They’ve done a great job of getting the message out to pockets of the community, and that helps them come out of the shadows.”
He added that co-founder Hector Ortiz, now an assistant professor at Central Penn College, was his ticket to the program.
“This group has gone from hosting one event to serving as a year-long support network,” he said. “It’s not just Fiesta Del Nino or the Multicultural Picnic, it’s all about what they do the other 363 days a year.”
Another picnic guest, Dr. Sarah Ramirez, assistant professor at Penn State’s College of Medicine, hopes to make health care more culturally accessible. She notes that a Penn State health clinic in Harrisburg has Spanish-speaking providers on hand, and she brings medical students in to volunteer for EU.
Ramirez has helped to translate medical forms and recruit bilingual health care providers, a critical need since 19 percent of the Harrisburg area is Spanish-speaking, she said.
“I saw the disconnect between doctor and patient,” she said. “I want to narrow the gaps in health care disparities for the Hispanic population.”
EU tries to close educational, interpersonal and economic gaps, as well.
Its annual gala is a whirlwind of food, music and culture, highlighted by the presentation of scholarships to deserving students. It’s also become a signature social event in the midstate, where you just might bump into a governor, lieutenant governor, CEO or cabinet official such as Pedro Cortes, secretary of the Commonwealth, and Pedro Rivera, Pennsylvania’s education secretary.
“If you want to be a banker, you can meet George Nahodil, who is now the acting president of Members 1st Credit Union,” Dominic said of EU’s founding treasurer.
You also may run into now-TV star Graham Hetrick, Dauphin County’s charismatic coroner. Hetrick’s wife Esmeralda, who has Mexican and Texan roots, has served as EU’s president and is a frequent performer at its events.
Dominic underscored that 100 percent of the money raised at the EU gala stays in the community.
“This is evidence that EU is an organization that works,” she said.
In fact, many past scholarship recipients are now physicians, musicians and business owners.
“It validates our mission when people reach their goals,” Dominic said.
As Ortiz enjoyed a plate of homemade food under the merciful shade of Cibort Park’s pavilion, he said that he views EU’s biggest success as simply “community engagement.”
“It’s an opportunity to receive something and give something,” he said.
His goal was encapsulated by two objectives—“to share culture and make people feel at home.”
He recognized a commonality among people from so many different Spanish-speaking nations, whether from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Honduras, Colombia or points beyond. They all came to America with a strong love of family, a strong faith and strong values.
He recalled the joyful holiday celebration.
“Every single year, you see the faces of the children who get gifts,” he said. “And the people who line up just to say, ‘thank you.’”
To learn more about Estamos Unidos de Pennsylvania, visit www.estamosunidospa.org. The group’s annual gala is slated for Nov. 4.
Author: Diane McNaughton