Tag Archives: Gloria Vazquez Merrick

A Time to Give: Nonprofits depend on special holiday fundraisers and volunteers. What will they do this year?

Families, businesses and organizations will need to adapt this Christmas, putting aside long-held traditions, festivities and gatherings.

Local nonprofits also need to adjust, not allowing COVID-19 to eradicate what makes the season so special. And the community can play a big part in helping them.

“I never turn down a good idea,” said Gloria Vazquez-Merrick, executive director of the Latino Hispanic American Community Center (LHACC) in Allison Hill.

LHACC has loose plans for holidays, recognizing that things may have to change on a dime.

”We have to think outside the box, and that’s what we’re doing this year,” Vazquez-Merrick said.

Canceling the usual large party with Santa and a meal, LHACC wants to provide filled stockings to children and snack items to the seniors who visit the center. To that end, it’s asking for donations of snack items like fruit, beef jerky and Goya Maria cookies, a favorite of the older generation, Vazquez-Merrick said.

Also switching gears this Christmas is Brethren Housing Association (BHA) on Harrisburg’s Hummel Street. The women and children housed through BHA would usually share a meal with staff and their families and “shop” for Christmas gifts for their children via a shop set up with donated gifts.

“We won’t all be in a big room picking out presents,” said program director Marilyn Bellesfield.

Instead, people are signing up to purchase gifts that will be given to the families, and families will be provided food to create their own Christmas meal.

Donations of Christmas trees and trimmings were added this year as a morale boost for families who were already struggling, experiencing higher anxiety and depression caused by the pandemic.

“Almost every family lost their job, lost their childcare,” said Bellesfield.

People can help by providing cleaning supplies and gift cards or by sponsoring a night’s stay at BHA, budgeting classes or supplies for a youth program. Not very Christmas-y? Maybe, but cleaning supplies use up the little disposable income that many families have, and gift cards provide clothing for a newly housed family that has arrived with nothing.


Musical Gift

More traditionally, creating music is one way that people brighten Christmas for the guests at Paxton Street Home, part of Paxton Ministries. It houses adults of all ages with serious financial limitations, as well as long-term mental health or intellectual challenges. Music groups or choirs can perform in the outdoor courtyard, where residents can view the performance from inside.

“I think the acoustics would be outstanding for a brass band to play here,” said Jodie Smiley, executive director.

Usually, the house would have lots of volunteers during December, holding parties, special events and musical performances. COVID has changed all of that. It’s also grounded the home’s hand bell choir, which typically traveled for a few holiday performances. The group will still perform, however. A recorded performance will be available on YouTube.

Because Paxton Home is a licensed personal care facility, it’s required to restrict the comings and goings of its residents, as well as visitors because of COVID. A simple way to support them is through sending Christmas cards

“Everybody likes to get Christmas cards,” Smiley said. “People attach them to the door of their room.”

Looking forward to life after COVID, Smiley said that she would like to be able to provide outings, like to a Harrisburg Senators game or concerts for residents.

“It would be especially nice for people who have been as restricted as folks in facilities have been,” she said.

People can do this by designating their gifts to “resident’s needs” or “activities.”


Deeply Humbled

Food is another need that many nonprofits have, especially Bethesda Mission. It provides food to about 500 people a day. They have pivoted on their large, indoor Christmas meal and will provide it as a take-away.

“So, that [food] is our greatest need for Christmas,” said Executive Director Scott Dunwoody.

He said that Bethesda Mission has many food drop-off locations.

“But also cash, which allows us to purchase perishable foods, while the other food we are receiving is dry goods,” he said.

Bethesda Mission also will reach out to families by distributing food and holding some programs at its community center on Herr Street. The large gym will allow for gathering with proper social distancing.

Christmas, a time focused on family, poses additional challenges for those experiencing homelessness and separation from relatives.

“It’s the worst time of year for them,” Dunwoody said. “They’re suffering greatly. We try to provide the resources to help them get through that.”

The organizations and people on the receiving end of giving appreciate it very much. Dunwoody said that people are deeply humbled when they receive help.

“They will make statements over and over again, ‘I don’t know why in the world I would be blessed this richly,” he said. “‘I’m getting food. I’m getting clothing. I’m getting professional health care.’”

The sentiment is similar at BHA, which always appreciates donations.

“You’ve eased a burden in some capacity for a mom and child whose load is pretty heavy,” said Kait Gillis-Hanna, BHA’s executive director.

Indeed, many nonprofits need financial support right now. At this time of the year, they often receive donations from special seasonal church collections, but churches themselves are not meeting in person or attendance is down. Grant money also has been reduced.

“We need financial support even in the good times, but, especially now, that financial support is important,” Smiley said.

If nonprofits are any indication, COVID hasn’t killed the Christmas spirit. It has unearthed the knowledge of what matters most in life— friends, family, security, love—and the desire to help those doing without.

For more information and to contribute to the organizations in this story, visit:

Brethren Housing Association, www.bha-pa.org/donate
Bethesda Mission,
Paxton Ministries,
Latino Hispanic American Community Center,

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Refuge from the Storm: Hurricane survivors have poured into Harrisburg–and their needs are immense.

Lillian Vazquez rode out Hurricane Maria in her mother’s cement house in Puerto Rico, concerned that her own coastal Vega Baja home would not survive the onslaught of wind and rain.

“It was terrible,” she said. “I could see everything flying, you know, the roofs of the houses flying.”

Her mother’s sturdy house shook in the wind as trees fell all around them. Her own home lost its roof.

Lack of water and electricity brought Vazquez to Pennsylvania. Her cousin, Gloria Vazquez Merrick, executive director of the Latino Hispanic American Community Center in Harrisburg (LHACC), invited Vazquez to stay with her.

Like Vazquez, many Puerto Rican families are coming to stay with family on the mainland, and when those families land in Harrisburg, one place they come for help and guidance is LHACC.

“We are the go-to place right now,” said Vazquez Merrick.

An energetic Vazquez Merrick juggles calls about providing families with Christmas gifts, details about Thanksgiving turkey deliveries, and a plethora of other tasks as she talks about LHACC’s increased workload. Since early October, LHACC has served more than 40 newly arrived families in Harrisburg, with more coming daily.

“We anticipated the exodus [from Puerto Rico], because we knew what conditions were,” she said.

Some fathers have sent their families to the states while they handle the cleanup until living conditions improve and schools reopen. Vazquez Merrick said that education is a driving force for people leaving Puerto Rico, as they want their children to get back into a routine as quickly as possible.

“They are afraid that the kids will be left behind from an educational standpoint,” she said.

People come to the center for a variety of needs—food, clothing, housing, transportation, jobs. Warm clothing tops the list because Pennsylvania’s chilly winters seem almost unbearable to folks accustomed to living in a tropical climate.

Recent arrivals share the need for basic necessities, but their needs vary considerably.

“There is no cookie-cutter approach to accommodating their needs,” said Vazquez Merrick.

Some need help getting children into school, finding a doctor, translation services or legal assistance. For example, people have left cars behind and want to transfer the title so that the car can be sold or given to someone else. Transferring that title in Puerto Rico while living in Harrisburg poses logistical problems, and people come to LHACC for assistance with the process.

Vazquez has been volunteering at LHACC since her arrival.

“I am helping my people,” she said. “I feel proud of that.”

Others want to give back, too. One woman, a music teacher, said she doesn’t speak English well but wants to help the center. She’s going to work with the seniors teaching piano, said Vazquez Merrick.

She said that LHACC’s small, dedicated staff of six does a lot of listening.

“Even to refer, you have to understand the whole story,” she said.

Those stories involve tears and showing pictures of their homes before the storm. Some people report nightmares. One little girl panics when it begins to rain. An LHACC supporter has volunteered mental health services for those who survived Maria.

The holidays offer the possibility of a “positive distraction” for displaced families.

“We want to do whatever we can do to help get them through the holidays,” Vazquez Merrick said.

People have offered to “adopt” families and children for Christmas and Three Kings Day (El Dia de los Reyes Magos) on Jan. 6, a special day to the people of Puerto Rico. All families at the center register with Toys for Tots, but Vazquez Merrick said she is concerned that, as families continue to arrive, some children will miss the registration date.

Vazquez Merrick would like to make LHACC a hub for connecting people with services—similar to a model used in New York City—a one-stop shop where people could get registered for school, fill out housing applications, find jobs or connect with a local church food bank. The Harrisburg School District and Christian Churches United HELP Ministries are already on board with the venture, Vazquez Merrick said.

LHACC continues its work helping the all people in the Harrisburg community as it receives those displaced by Maria. Vazquez Merrick said her staff is “stepping up and going above and beyond.”

Those on the receiving end of help show tremendous gratitude, which lifts the spirits of staff and volunteers at the center.

“You give somebody a pair of gloves, and you see how much they appreciate that,” Vazquez Merrick said.

Lending a Hand

LHACC needs a variety of goods, as well as cash donations, to better serve the people displaced from Hurricane Maria. These include:

  • Office supplies, Staples or Amazon gift cards (copier paper, five 2018 desk calendars, one 2-drawer file cabinet with lock, tri-fold presentation board, 3-inch, three-ring binders, tape, large scissors, two staplers, ESL flash cards); medium storage container bins
  • Coffee pot, pots and pans, cupcake and cookie sheets (baking items) and a hand mixer
  • Cleaning supplies/paper towels/trash bags
  • A dolly for moving boxes and heavy items
  • Craft supplies for children and adults in “Sharing Wisdom Program,” or AC Moore/Michael’s gift cards
  • Get It Now Print gift cards (or other print shop in close proximity to 13th and Derry streets)

The Latino Hispanic American Community Center (LHACC) is located at 1301 Derry St., Harrisburg. To donate, call 717-232-8302 or visit www.lhacc.org, where you also can make cash donations.


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Circling Back: After a lifetime of career challenges, Gloria Vazquez Merrick has returned to serve the community where she was raised.

Screenshot 2016-08-25 17.30.46A 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.”


Reciprocity, Growth

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.

Author: Susan Ryder

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Heart of a Community: LHACC provides support, celebration for Harrisburg’s growing Latino population.

Gloria Vázquez Merrick

Gloria Vázquez Merrick

Located in the heart of vibrant South Allison Hill, the Latino Hispanic American Community Center (LHACC) is gearing up for more initiatives on the heels of its successful block party in mid-September.

LHACC, a multi-faceted non-profit agency, provides information and referrals, case management, education outreach and a variety of advocacy services to the entire Latino community, with an eye on developing programs for youth and senior citizens.

Executive Director Gloria Vázquez Merrick explained that this year’s block party drew more than 800 people with stands featuring 40 different organizations, including churches, colleges, private businesses and other non-profit agencies. The party also featured a local salsa band, Los Monstros, a few Puerto Rican youth dance troupes, an awards ceremony for businesses with good diversity hiring records and several Latino food vendors. She pointed out that, in 2010, the gathering drew just 250 people, with 30 organizations sponsoring tables and stands.

“We were really excited about the turnout,” Vázquez Merrick said, “and the responses to the tables follow what we’ve been seeing.”

She noted that many of their clients—and they average about 600 to 700 service requests per month—are looking for help with food, employment, English as a Second Language classes and immigration problems.

“But a large percentage of folks coming to the center are coming for jobs,” she stated. “Today, we had an employment agency come in, so we connected them to the people on our list. We are also finding that employers are realizing the value of bilingual workers, and we help to fill those needs too.”

Many of these same clients, she added, are looking for English language classes and help with immigration issues such as renewing a green card or working on passports.

She added that, while the Center has a strong human services component with its case management program, the staff also has found that there’s a need for culturally sensitive and bilingual services for seniors and for youth.

“When we were first starting, we heard from many of our seniors that they felt left out and that they were in need of culturally sensitive programming,” she stated.

From there, Vázquez Merrick started a Wednesday night event for Latino seniors called the Sharing Wisdom program. This weekly gathering features visits from speakers presenting information about dealing with diabetes, heart disease, education and recreation. The participating seniors also play dominoes, cards, bingo and just socialize.

“We also found that there was a clear need for Latino youth programming,” Vázquez Merrick said. Based on those conversations, she began to conduct outreach to local universities and schools, eventually joining the Youth Advisory Council run by school board member Ruth Cruz-Roldan.

“We have met with Latino students from all across the area, and I’ve started an initiative that will involve youth leadership training and educational support,” she stated.  “We need to invest in our young people.”


The Latino Hispanic American Community Center is located at 1301 Derry St., Harrisburg. More information can be found at www.lhacc.org or by calling 717-232-8302.

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