In Houston, Latino Volunteers Roll Up Their Sleeves to Help Hurricane Harvey Victims

BetoCardenas

Houston attorney and resident Beto Cardenas, and fellow volunteer, Karen Penner, have been helping out at Houston’s convention center. (Courtesy Beto Cardenas)

Hurricane Harvey has caused massive destruction and displacement, but it has also brought out the kindness and energy of volunteers like Beto Cárdenas.

A fifth-generation Texan born in Laredo, Cárdenas, 44, has lived in Houston for the past decade. As an attorney, he often does pro bono work and outreach for the Hispanic community; more than 40 percent of the residents in the nation’s fourth largest city are Latino.

This week, Cárdenas has been volunteering at the George R. Brown Convention Center as it houses thousands of people. “It’s about seven blocks from where I live. I happen to have friends from the UK — Manchester — visiting, and they’re helping too.”

The downtown area where Cárdenas lives is a little higher in elevation, so it wasn’t as affected in terms of flooding.

“My wife [Norma Bustamante Cárdenas] is a registered nurse and has been taking multiple shifts at Texas Medical Center, the largest hospital in Houston, making sure the staffing levels are intact, because people are having trouble getting out of their homes,” Cárdenas explained.

Registered nurse Norma Bustamante Cardenas is working extra shifts at Houston’s Texas Medical Center as her husband Beto Cardenas volunteers at the George W. Brown Convention Center. (Courtesy Beto Cardenas)

 

He said he’s been helping get medical supplies to the convention center and helping unload contributions — everything from diapers to clothing to board games.

“You see the force of nature, and that’s something that strikes you — then you see the force of the humanity, and you are obviously going to be moved by it,” Cárdenas said. “There is something to be said about Texas. It’s about rescue and recovery and looking out for each other —all the discussion about what could have been done better, that’s secondary.”

Cárdenas said there is a need for medical supplies such as sickness bags, urinals, bed pans, oximeters, gloves, masks, catheters, chucks, saline, saniwipes and bandages. Houston’s food banks are also collecting donations.

Marc Martinez, 51, is an Army veteran who retired in 2014 after serving 22 years. In 2012, he joined the non-profit Team Rubicon, which unites the skills of military veterans and first responders to form rapid response teams in emergency situations; Martinez volunteers there six to eight hours a week, while working at the Department of Defense in the U.S. Army full-time as a civilian conducting environmental health inspections in Fort Carson, Colorado – where he resides.

Team Rubicon is collecting donations for Harvey and lending a hand.

“They called me on Sunday evening,” said Martinez. “Luckily I have great bosses, and I was able to take a seven-day leave.”

He’s currently serving as the second in command in the disaster area as the deputy incident commander.

He is still in shock at the magnitude of the storm saying it is about three times more rain than Hurricane Katrina. He’s also grateful for the amount of volunteers at hand.

“The Cajun Navy showed up, and pretty much everyone with a boat showed up,” said Martinez. “The number of people helping complete strangers is outstanding. They dropped what they were doing and came to help. It’s nice to see people actually have a good side – especially after the incidents recently at Charlottesville.”

He said one of their biggest challenges have been the flooded roads, but the boat crews have successfully conducted over 41 rescues.

 A view from a rescue boat from Team Rubicon, where Marc Martinez is volunteering.  (Courtesy Team Rubicon)

According to Martinez, military veterans thrive in chaos.

“Most of us have been deployed multiple times, so sleeping two nights in a hammock I have no problem with,” Martinez said. “I’m used to not eating for multiple hours. Our brains are focused on the job at hand.”

What he has seen people in need of is diapers and formula. “Without diapers, it puts stress on the child and family members.”

Regina Garcia resides in Corpus Christi, where she was born and raised, and she suffered minimal damage to her home there. Hurricane Harvey started on Friday, the 25th, the day of her 46th birthday.

She is an employee at H-E-B Grocery Stores, a Texas supermarket chain, and has been spearheading a mobile kitchen effort serving free meals to hurricane victims since Tuesday evening.

 Volunteers from the H-E-B Grocery Stores, including Regina Garcia, working to get donated supplies to families in need.  (Courtesy Regina Garcia)

“Last night we served over 1,000 meals,” said Garcia on Wednesday, from where she and the rest of the team are currently based in Rockport. “We are using social media outlets to get the word out.”

She said they served 1,200 meals for breakfast, another 1,200 for lunch, and they were getting ready for dinner. They were giving away ice water and bread, and they setting up a pharmacy.

The area was still under strict curfew from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. “We are here to help out as much as we can. Everyone’s worried about each other.”

Richard Garza was born and raised in Laredo and moved to Houston in 1986. For the past 11 years, he has been the director of Houston Gateway Schools — three open-enrollment charter schools serving 2,400 students. Affiliated with UnidosUS, the charter schools also provide a myriad of community services like ESL classes, immigration services, citizenship classes, and home buyer education classes. Ninety-eight percent of the students are Latino and 92 percent are low-income, at risk students.

“We have 200 employees, and 31 staff members were rescued,” said Garza on Wednesday. “Where the three schools are, it was all flooded within a 10-mile radius…I have not been able to go to the other two campuses because the streets are impassable…To put a dollar amount it’s quite a bit. Maybe $300,000 – including computers.”

The past few days he’s been making sure to keep in constant contact with his staff and families.

“I’ve been telling everyone to apply to FEMA — I tell them to do that first, then to follow up with their insurance and to let me know where they are short, so I can try to help,” said Garza, who was preparing to meet with the staff on Friday.

“I want to make sure we are going to be ready before Tuesday and make sure we have food for the kids,” he said. “I want to make sure our facilities are ready for breakfast lunch and dinner. The sooner I can help my staff return to work, the sooner the kids can have a normal day-to-day life.”

He’s also reaching out to extra counselors for his students, as he only has three on staff.

“If adults get stressed out and get anxiety attacks, I can only imagine how children feel,” said Garza. “On Tuesday, I want to hear from the kids and parents and see how I can help them.”

Pastor Hernán Castaño is the senior pastor of Ríos De Aceite Church, which is part of the U.S. Pastor Council. He has two Hispanic congregations — one in Houston, made up of 900 members, and one in Katy, made up of 150 members. He has served the local community as a pastor for more than 15 years, helping counsel individuals and families in everyday issues.

“We are already coordinating efforts to gather donations at our church building, cooking food for the homeless and hungry and distributing all donations to those that have lost everything,” said Castaño on Wednesday. “Working with other churches, we will give 100 percent of ourselves to save lives, help people, and rebuild this city.”

On Friday, Sept. 1st, the church is planning to open its doors from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. to receive donations of clothing and shoes in good condition for both adults and children, baby wipes, baby formula and food, new blankets and pillows, water, nonperishable food, towels, deodorant, toothbrushes and toothpaste, razors and shaving cream.

The pastor said it was “noticeable” that amid political divisions and controversy, including the issue of the SB4 immigration law, “many Latinos are out there helping regardless of color, race, immigration status and background.”

Originally published on NBCNews.com.

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Entrepreneur Creates a Bilingual Platform to Make Retirement Saving Easy

Within minutes of meeting financial entrepreneur Carlos García, you feel like you’ve known him for years, and suddenly, you’re discussing how to solve Americans’ lack of retirement savings.

“It is possible,” said the 37-year-old about one of America’s biggest challenges, “if you have the passion for it.”

This past February, García launched a startup aiming to do just that. Finhabits is a bilingual digital platform that gives investment advice and teaches and encourages individuals how to invest and save for retirement.

This, he explained, came from his realization that he grew up knowing very little about building wealth and saving, something he learned while working at his first job at Merrill Lynch in NYC.

“I never opened my 401K packet from H.R., and after three years, my colleague said, ‘I already have $30,000 saved for my retirement and the company matched it,’ and I said, ‘What?’ All these terms I didn’t know, and then I thought about all the people I know, and maybe their parents didn’t teach them either.”

García said that while his parents instilled in him an ethic of hard work, they were not familiar with long-term financial planning.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, this is indeed a common occurrence among Latinos. Only 26 percent of Hispanic families had retirement savings in 2013, compared to 41 percent of black families and 65 percent of white families.

“I got frustrated when I looked at my Merrill Lynch plan, but then I thought about the people who don’t work for a corporation and don’t have a pension,” said García. As fewer Americans work for big companies with 401Ks and pension plans, it’s even more imperative, say experts, that individuals know how to chart out their own savings.

Research by the National Institute on Retirement Security confirms that only 38 percent of Latinos, versus 62 percent of whites, have access to a retirement plan through their employer.

“Most people don’t contribute money to their retirement —what is going to happen when we reach 80? I thought to myself, “This is a Latino problem.”

García designed Finhabits as a platform that helps people who have never invested, develop the habit to do it. “If I can make saving for retirement more accessible and cheaper, it’s a winner — it’s just like going to the gym,” he said. “We text you to give you a nudge to contribute on a weekly basis.”

So far, Finhabits has been highly active in Texas, Florida and California. Most clients are new investors in their 30’s and saving for retirement using Roth IRA’s, contributing an average of $40 a week.

“We want to be in as many Hispanic-driven places as possible,” said García. “Any citizen or permanent resident can open an account. Eighty-five percent of our clients have never invested or had a retirement account before. Ninety-five percent of our users are mobile audience.”

What differentiates Finhabits from other digital financial apps, said García, is that it’s focused on long-term financial habits. The digital platform charges $1 per month for accounts under $2,500 and 0.5 percent per year for accounts that pass that amount.

“Many Latinos don’t retire and keep working, because they have to, but what happens if you get a health issue?” said García. “And there’s a difference between having a savings account and investing…Ideally, I want everyone to put 5 percent of their income away annually.”

García said that no matter how much one puts away, it’s best to just do it and not to put off saving.

García is no stranger to solving problems. He spent his formative years alternating between living in El Paso, Texas where he was born, and Juárez, Mexico, the birthplace of his parents —studying in both countries and speaking both languages. He left the U.S.-Mexico border when he got accepted into MIT, one of the world’s most prestigious universities —to study electrical engineering and computer science.

“I was an electrical engineer first, and electrical engineering teaches you how to solve problems,” said García. He later switched to a finance career in risk and asset management.

Though he has navigated in the high-stakes and lucrative world of finance, García sees his mission as helping support underserved communities, beginning with Latinos.

In 2010, after nearly a decade in Wall Street, García and a few friends from Mexico saw a need to help children affected by drug-related violence in Juarez. They formed Project Paz, a non-profit that partners with artists and socially-conscious brands to host fundraising events. The proceeds fund after-school art programs in Juarez. In the past seven years, more the 6,000 children have benefited from the program.

Apart from his philanthropic work, García is focused on helping propel what he thinks is a bright future for Hispanics.

“Latinos are the only group who has had income growth since 2008– so there is a huge potential that we are going to be the next wealthy class.”

However, García says saving money for retirement and building a nest egg has to be every individual’s own priority.

“It’s important that you take care of yourself, because the government is not and your employer is probably not,” said García. “If you spend an hour per year thinking about what you do with your money, you can double your wealth in retirement.”

Originally published on NBCNews.com.

Ecuador Photographer Brings Food and Hope to Earthquake Victims

manuelaviles

Ever since Manuel Avilés was a teenager in his native Guayaquil, Ecuador, he was known in his high school as the one to help out whenever there was a need. By 17, he was committed to the idea of becoming a Catholic priest, but after volunteering one and a half years as a missionary in the Amazon rain forest and seeing how lonely the way of life can be, he opted to pursue another new found passion – photography.

Avilés had gone on his high school senior class trip to the Galápagos Islands with the new camera his aunt had gifted him. He immediately fell in love with capturing images of the lush landscapes of his beloved country. At 41, he is now a renowned professional photographer in Ecuador – spending his days touring the country for various projects.

Although many years have passed since his time as a missionary, Avilés’ innate desire to help people never left him. Ever since the devastating 7.8 magnitude Ecuador earthquake on April 16, which killed more than 650 and displaced nearly 73,000, he has devoted all of his waking hours traveling city to city along his country’s coast – from Manta to Portoviejo – bringing food, supplies and good cheer to the devastated people there.

Avilés says many of the victims are still sleeping outside where their houses once stood to take care of their belongings.

His photos, which you can find on his Facebook page, pretty much speak for themselves, and they have garnered supporters all the way from the U.S., such as this guy – Oakley Walker (featured below, left, with Avilés, right) who found out about Avilés’ cause and flew down from Florida to the small town of Canoa, Manabi to volunteer for three days.

Originally published on The Huffington Post – where you can see more photos.

The Lives of Migrant Farmerworkers’ Children Focus of ‘East of Salinas’

When we think about where our food comes from, we don’t often think about what our farm workers go through on a daily basis, let alone their children.

Award-winning filmmaker Laura Pacheco thought about it for the first time after reading a New York Times article in 2011. The story was about Oscar Ramos, a third grade teacher in Salinas, California, who came from a migrant family. Ramos teaches in Sherwood Elementary School, where half of his class is made up of children of migrant farmworker families. Often these children have to move several times a year to follow the harvest and have to wake up at 3am to go to a babysitter, before school, so their parents can go work in the fields.

“I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” said Pacheco. “He knows what’s missing in these kids’ lives,” said Pacheco about Ramos.

There are more than 2 million farmworkers in the U.S., and their median wage is a little over $9 an hour. Immigrant farmworkers (approximately 75 percent are coming from Mexico) often leave their home countries to seek a better life for their families. However, the average migrant child may attend as many as three different schools in one year, often making it difficult for a child to advance to the next grade level.

'East of Salinas' producer/director Laura Pacheco  (Courtesy ITVS)

‘East of Salinas’ producer/director Laura Pacheco (Courtesy ITVS)

Pacheco was so intrigued by these figures that she wrote Mr. Ramos and told him she’d like to meet and talk to him about making a film. Together with co-director Jackie Mow, they decided to focus on one family, and one boy in particular, José Anzaldo.

“We decided to follow one to get an intimate look of what a migrant family is like in America,” says Pacheco.

After three years of filming, their film, “East of Salinas” will be premiering on PBS’ Independent Lens on Monday, December 28th. (10pET, see PBS for local listings).

Jose’s mother, Maria, is from Mexicali. She used to work in a clothing factory, but she couldn’t support herself and her children. Jose’s stepfather is from El Salvador, where he also did agricultural work, but he says, “You can live there, but you were always hungry.”

Coming to the U.S., the family still often goes to bed hungry, but not as much. José loves school, especially math, but he is one of two million undocumented children living in the U.S. today. He is María’s only son who was not born in the U.S. – so she worries about his undocumented status and what that portends for his future.

Pacheco and Mow were able to follow José around since the 3rd grade. He’s already attended more than five schools and is now in 7th grade. He’s continuing to do really well in school, said Pacheco.

“In the beginning, he’s a little naive about his situation, and at the end he becomes more aware,” said Pacheco. “It’s really hard to see someone’s potential, and then leave and not know if he’s going to have food the next day – Oscar (his teacher) still goes to see them and takes the boys to the movies.”

Teacher Oscar Ramos takes 5th and 6th graders, including José Anzaldo, to visit UC Berkeley, part of the 'East of Salinas' documentary.  (Courtesy ITVS)

Teacher Oscar Ramos takes 5th and 6th graders, including José Anzaldo, to visit UC Berkeley, part of the ‘East of Salinas’ documentary. (Courtesy ITVS)

His teacher Oscar Ramos sees the little boy’s promise and wants to help him get ahead. The question is, what opportunities will be available for children like José, a bright student who is undocumented?

Pacheco hopes viewers take away certain things from watching the film such as what education is like for farmworker children and where our food is coming from.

“But if I had to say one thing, I hope José lives in people’s hearts,” says Pacheco. “Immigration is a hot topic right now. It gets so polarized. People feel so righteous on both sides of the debate, but you can see who the kids are that are going to make America great and should be given an opportunity.”

“These are the families who are picking food for America,” says Pacheco. “We should know what their lives are like.”

Originally published on NBCNews.com.

Female “Carlos Santana” rocks out for clean water, civil rights

Cecilia Villar Eljuri (©Manovill Records)

Cecilia Villar Eljuri (©Manovill Records)

To Guayaquil-born Cecilia Villar Eljuri – better known as just Eljuri – music is as integral to her life as water.

Her mother was a pianist and composer so Eljuri was exposed to boleros, tango and flamenco when she was five. When she was 12, she says she became addicted to guitar and rock.  She started playing her own music at 17 in clubs in New York City, where she still resides.

“I write from the heart, but it’s mostly from experiences and people I meet when traveling – about empowerment and fighting for change and rights and everything else,” says the eclectic musician often called “Carlita” for her resemblance to classic rock guitarist, Carlos Santana.

After playing an active role trying to get Latinas to vote in the last U.S. presidential election, via Voto Latino, the latest change Eljuri is fighting for is clean water in her native Ecuador. A luxury not all citizens of the world have.

“I met the president of Water Ecuador at an Ecuadorian festival in Washington DC in 2008 – I was performing and he had a booth,” says Eljuri who had also just released her first solo CD.

“He wanted to help treat people as a med student and found a lot of people had stomach issues and it came from the water being infected. Instead of curing people after they get sick, he thought, ‘let me prevent it.’”

Over the years, they stayed in touch, and chose Isla Puna – a small island four hours from Guayaquil, with little access to the mainland and extremely contaminated drinking water, for their next clean water project. It will begin construction on January 6.

“We provide them education and then connect with communities to teach them how to maintain a water center – we make it self-sustainable,” says the singer, who had a benefit concert this past October. “We raised tons of money, and we did a hot-a-thon releasing a single for the concert to raise more money…The money goes right to the project.”

She explains that Water Ecuador is mostly run by volunteers.

“There were 20 last summer – many were students from Harvard and Yale,” says Eljuri.

While Eljuri continues to raise money for clean water, she is also working on a music video for one of her latest songs, “Ya es hora,” and an educational guitar series for beginning and accomplished guitarists to find their “voice.” This year, she plans on touring the U.S., Mexico and Canada.

Originally published on NBCLatino.com

New global lingerie company employs single mothers in Medellín

Naja founder, Catalina Girald (Photo/Camilo Echeverri)

Naja founder, Catalina Girald (Photo/Camilo Echeverri)

Colombian-born Catalina Girald was a mergers and acquisitions attorney at a prestigious law firm for four years when she left to get an MBA from Stanford University in 2006. Little did she know, however, that the sewing and design classes she took for fun while an attorney at NYC’s Fashion Institute of Technology would actually lead to her next career.

In 2007, Girald founded one of the first venture-funded fashion sites for independent designers – Moxsie – which was sold to Fab.com two years later. And this year, she began an international web-driven lingerie brand called Naja.

It all started when one of her undergarments was “falling apart,” explains Girald, saying she thought to herself, ‘Why can’t they be the same quality as in Colombia?’

Apart from the quality, the Latina entrepreneur says she was also concerned about the cost of lingerie. “I wanted to found a brand that had an accessible price for consumers.”

So Girald, based in San Francisco, created a business plan – but with a deeper mission. Her goal included making sure her brand empowered women – something she feels was currently missing from stores.

“They use a hypersexualized type of photography, and when I look at that, it doesn’t look like me,” says Girald about other mainstream lingerie brands.

So she set out to create a line that makes women feel good about both wearing the lingerie – and about the company itself.

“We train and employ single mothers in Medellín,” Girald says about Naja. “Every purchase you make is a contribution to the employment to a single mother in a poor area. If you buy lingerie, you’re helping women in need.”

From Medellín herself, Girald explains that Naja partnered with the Golondrinas Foundation – an organization that educates children of poor families by also educating their parents.

“We partnered with them on their sewing program,” says Girald. “When you order lingerie, you get a free wash bag and half of that amount goes to the training program, and the other half goes directly to the women we employ.”

Meticulous thought went into the crafting of Naja, from its humanitarian concept to using quality materials and designs from local artists, explains Girald.

“We spent a lot of time interviewing women to find out what they wanted,” says Girald, who is in her mid-30’s. “On May 3, an engineer and I moved to Colombia, to my parents’ house, because we didn’t have any money to start the company.”

After working on the concept, Girald says Naja ended up as a brand which primarily flatters women over the age of 28.

“That’s when women’s bodies start changing,” she explains. “Our cuts are designed to cover up bellies. There’s a double layer in the front – it is comfortable and beautiful.”

Some of the articles of clothing have [motivational] quotes – “so you can feel a little bit better about day.”

Girald also gushes about the texture of the cotton used for Naja garments – the samples of which she cuts herself.

“In order to be designated Pima cotton, it comes from a part region in Peru that has a particular soil that makes the cotton feel creamy,” says Girald. “We spent four months researching our (bra) cups which are 70 percent memory foam and 30 percent polyurethane. You can put them in a suitcase or washing machine, and they won’t break.”

As far as the future goes, Girald says she hopes Naja grows into a really large brand that’s accessible to most people, and also employs lots of people.

“My ultimate dream is to help women in the U.S. with employment,” says the businesswoman.

Originally published on NBCLatino.com

Latina veteran honored as “Champion of Change” for work on clean energy

Elizabeth Perez Halperin while serving in the U.S. Navy. (Courtesy Elizabeth Perez Halperin)

Elizabeth Perez Halperin while serving in the U.S. Navy. (Courtesy Elizabeth Perez Halperin)

After being in charge of refueling aircraft in the U.S. Navy for eight years, Elizabeth “Liz” Perez-Halperin says she got interested in reducing the nation’s dependency on oil as well as its energy consumption. In 2010, the Wounded Warrior veteran founded GC Green Incorporated — a company providing job training to veterans in the renewable energy industry, teaching them entrepreneurship skills, and providing clean technology industry job placement assistance.

On Tuesday, Perez-Halperin was one of 12 national heroes honored at The White House as “Champions of Change.” The event celebrated veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who are doing extraordinary work to advance clean energy and increase climate resilience and preparedness in their communities. The U.S. Secretary of Energy, Dr. Ernest Moniz, thanked the honorees for their service — past and present.

 “I got a call in September from a gentlemen from The White House letting me know I was selected. It was just that ‘wow’ feeling,” she says, upon hearing of the award. “It’s a time of reflection for me for my time of service and to my dad’s time in the military – all of my hard work and my dad coming to the States for a better life – it’s all happening right now.”

Perez-Halperin explains that her dad, who passed away in 1995, joined the military as a young man after immigrating from Mexico to seek a better life for his family.

“My dad is a huge influence in my life — he taught me not to complain — instead to find a solution,” she explains. “Even in the government today you see a lot of complaining, but I want to find solutions and find people to collaborate.”

RELATED: Hiring Our Heroes: An entrepreneur strives to hire veterans

The 34-year-old says – her voice shaky with emotion – that losing a close friend was one of the inspirations for building a training facility to support veterans on their own clean technology ventures. Her friend Nicole Palmer died during an attack on a Navy vessel in 2000.

“I’d like to name it after her,” says Perez-Halperin about the new center, which is located in San Diego, California, 20 minutes from Camp Pendleton. The facility will help keep veterans employed with salaries starting at $25 to 50 per hour.

“That’s our goal…I’d like to continue working on projects that will protect our nation.”

Perez-Halperin says clean energy is important to her, because people don’t realize is there is national security at stake as well, as groups and countries will increasingly fight for their share of scarce resources.

“Water conservation is huge,” says Perez-Halperin, who has been teaching about this topic at San Diego State University for the past three years.

“I strongly feel there’s evidence that our sources for water are depleting. It’s going to be our next oil. Once our water’s polluted, it’s gone.”

Perez-Halperin says she’d like to continue to grow GC Green by collaborating with the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs on specialized programs.

“I’d like to open a holistic center for veterans returning from war,” says Perez-Halperin, who is also a fan of meditation as opposed to medication. “I’m also a wounded warrior, and it’s something that I do personally — it keeps me grounded.”

Perez-Halperin has accomplished much on the battlefield and now on the home front, but she says her biggest accomplishment is being able to bring her 12-year-old daughter to The White House.

“Now she has the opportunity to see why I am working so hard. That means a lot to me —  to be an example for her, like my dad was for me,” says Perez. “I want to be that example too for other veteran women.”

“Outside of the uniform, there’s so much more work we can do.”

Originally published in NBCLatino.com.