Irma Rivera ’05 Gains a Fresh Perspective
By Paige Blache
When Irma Rivera ’05 worked in an after-school program at a wealthy northwest D.C. school, she didn’t imagine where the experience of working with children and families would lead her. However, as many people know, perspective is everything. Today, as director of the Family Literacy Project at CentroNía in Washington D.C., Rivera receives a fresh dose of perspective on a daily basis, and that is what inspires the passion for her vocation at this respected community organization.
Rivera started at Trinity with interests in child psychology and social work. The introduction to community work in her early Trinity years became the roadmap to her future when she began working at CentroNía. This nationally recognized educational organization provides quality affordable education, professional development and family-support services in a bilingual environment to more than 1,500 children, youth and families in the greater Washington area. Rivera’s career at CentroNía began when the organization was in its formative years, and she personally witnessed the faith, determination, and commitment from the organization’s founder and CEO, Beatriz Otero. “BB”, as Otero is known in the community, became an inspiration to Rivera, and she wanted to work closely with her to learn from a true visionary.
The first job Rivera had at CentroNía was working with an after school program, and it gave her the perspective she needed to flourish in this environment. Juxtaposed against the wealthy northwest D.C. students she previously worked with, her “at-risk” students were truly in need, and the difference that she was making in their lives was making a difference in her own. Rivera says that she even brought work home with her – the childrens’ challenges and the effects of domestic abuse and drug abuse. It was difficult and taxing for her to care so much about each child. “I prayed for them to show up each day just so they would have a place to escape from their shattered homes,” she said.
As emotionally draining as this was for a young college student, it was just as energizing. As Rivera gained more experience working with children and families, she was able to move into a new position as a family support worker in CentroNía’s Healthy Families program. Branching out to families solidified her commitment to children and social work, and provided the hands-on experiences that she needed as her education advanced.
Rivera loved her work with Healthy Families. A native of El Salvador, she was able to reconnect with her community by working on immigration cases, and she noticed that many families, especially immigrant families, fall into a gap: “In many ways they are not noticed by society, and they need help navigating through all of the services that will help them to become thriving members of the community.”
Feeling a strong desire to share everything she gained through her work at CentroNía, Rivera collaborated with Trinity’s Office of Campus Ministry to recruit student volunteers. Interestingly to Rivera, she found that it was not always easy finding college students to volunteer for such demanding work, but Rivera was clearly a special young woman who was able to give so much of herself to people she did not know.
Nonprofit organizations are often the unfortunate victims of bad economic times, and CentroNía was no exception. Early in Rivera’s career, she saw firsthand, through layoffs and program cutbacks, how an organization that depends on the generosity of others can be affected when times get tough. But, these challenges presented great opportunities, and this young student learned about grants and networking and other means of support. She took the difficult times in stride and learned from them, and in doing so demonstrated her potential. Rivera’s ability to thrive at CentroNía reinforces her assertion that the organization builds young people into leaders within their community.
Rivera’s determination got her through the turbulent times and she then moved into a new area of work. She became a specialist in the Family Literacy program working with, in her own words, “an amazing boss.” This work directed her toward education courses at Trinity that helped her to write and teach the curriculum. She never imagined that she would be writing curricula, but she saw what needed to be done and used all of her inner resources to get the job accomplished.
The work inspired great confidence in Rivera and gave her the desire to spread her passion wherever she could. She knew she was doing valuable work for so many people, and it made her work even harder to make a difference in the lives of the people who needed help.
Rivera’s experiences at work impacted her education at Trinity, influencing the classes she took and the papers she wrote. Her work and education directly influenced one another, and she encourages students interested in community work to get a job while they are in school to help them to know what they truly want. She said, “It will require commitment, passion, and the knowledge that the work is not about the money, but about the rewards it brings to one’s life.”
Today, Rivera is proud of the team she has built, the management skills she has developed, and the great Trinity graduates she recruited to join the organization.