Meet Ana Maria Iglesias: Volunteer, Donor, and Friend of the Welcoming Center

Ana Maria Iglesias knows a thing or two about coming to a new country with little knowledge of the language and culture and about landing on hard times. She also understands that even when things are going smoothly, life can knock you down, but that you have to “pick yourself up and move on.”

As a volunteer for the Welcoming Center’s International Professionals Program (IPP), she often advises immigrant jobseekers to create a five-year plan, something she did herself as a young Cuban exile in the 1960’s.

“One of the things I always tell the participants is that when my husband and I were first starting out, at times we had no money and we didn’t know if we were going to make it, so we began making five-year plans. Thinking about where we wanted to be in five years really helped.  What do I have to do four years from now to get there? In three years? What do I have to do today? This gave us a goal. It gave us hope. It gave us purpose and it gave us a path.”

“Right now, so many people feel isolated during this pandemic. We feel like it is never going to end. But we have to look forward. We will make it through.”

Ana Maria was born in Havana, Cuba. She lived a comfortable and contented life. Her father was employed by an American company, Pan American Airways, and her mother, like many women of her socio-economic class, did not work, cook, clean, or drive.  In July of 1960, when she was 10 years old, Ana Maria’s mother took her and her little brother to Miami on “vacation.”  They never went back to Cuba.

“I will never forget. I was ten and my brother was six and my mother did not speak any English.  We were staying at a hotel in Miami Beach and we were going to stay for six weeks. But then we were enrolled in school in Miami that fall. And then we were going to go back in December when ‘the situation calmed down’ and that didn’t happen and so it went on.”

Sixty years later, Ana Maria and her husband Aquiles, also a Cuban exile, have lived in many places in the U.S. following his career in academia. Aquiles’ work eventually brought them to the Philadelphia area where they raised their two children and where Ana Maria retired eleven years ago from a successful career in management and finance.

But life was not always easy for the young couple who met at age 15 and married and had children by age 21. “We were just kids.  We raised each other,” recalls Ana Maria.

They hit many bumps in the road, including when their son, 19 years old at the time, got into a serious car accident that almost killed him. He suffered from massive head trauma and Ana Maria thought that the world had ended. He eventually recuperated, but Ana Maria shares this story to remind us that we do not know what life will bring us. “Right now, so many people feel isolated during this pandemic. We feel like it is never going to end. But we have to look forward. We will make it through.”

“I try to tell them that they may have feelings of despair right now, but that will pass and that you have to pick yourself up and move on.”

The theme of looking forward guided Ana Maria through many situations in her life and is the advice she wisely imparts on newcomers at the Welcoming Center, especially now during the pandemic and troubling economic situation.  “I try to tell them that they may have feelings of despair right now, but that will pass and that you have to pick yourself up and move on.”

In the Cuban exile community in Miami where Ana Maria spent her formative years, many of her parents’ friends were physicians, lawyers, and engineers. The ones that became successful in America, she recalls, were the ones that said, “Okay, I am a dishwasher today, but tomorrow I will try to see what I can do to get my residency so I can practice medicine or dentistry here. Or maybe I have to go back to school to and get a validation of engineering here in the U.S.  If you are only focusing on what you are doing today, washing dishes even though you have a master’s degree, you will drown.”

Ana Maria is more than a mentor to participants in the IPP program. She recently started volunteering to help plan the Welcoming Center’s annual gala, the Solas Awards, and has been a donor and friend of the organization for several years now.

“The Welcoming Center gives without expectation of payback. It is a completely selfless organization and my husband and I have seen the success stories – we have met them in person. The Welcoming Center is a beautiful organization with a beautiful purpose.”

She was introduced to the Welcoming Center by her friend Nina Chen, who works as the Special Projects Consultant, after volunteering with other nonprofits and was looking for something meaningful that connected with her values and skills. Nina invited Ana Maria and Aquiles to the Welcoming Center’s annual fundraiser in February of 2019 and they immediately felt a personal connection.

“My husband is not one to easily open his wallet. He is very generous, but he has to be really moved. So, when we heard one of the participant’s stories about opening her own business and giving back to her community, he immediately took out his credit card to donate.”

What Ana Maria values about the Welcoming Center is the opportunity to share her experiences with newcomers and to listen to their stories. She admires the impact that the Welcoming Center has on people and on their lives.

“The Welcoming Center gives without expectation of payback. It is a completely selfless organization and my husband and I have seen the success stories – we have met them in person. The Welcoming Center is a beautiful organization with a beautiful purpose.”

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