As a child, Monica Jimenez would have fun pretending to be a teacher. In high school, her interests shifted from teaching to law. Soon after beginning law school she realized that path was not for her. She then found her true passion, Special Education.
Monica graduated from La Universidad de Azuay in Ecuador with a Bachelor’s in Special Education in 1996. She came to the United States from Ecuador through a cultural exchange program and fell in love with the American culture and her host family. With the help of her host family she was able to become a resident and later obtained U.S. citizenship. In the U.S., Monica obtained her Child Development Associate Credential and started to work as a paraeducator in Stamford Public Schools. Here she spent five years helping and strengthening the academic performance of students in the Bilingual and New Arrivals program. Today, Monica lives in Stamford with her daughter and works as a Parent Educator for Family Centers, a nonprofit organization offering educational, health, and human services to families.
During her years as a paraeducator, Monica realized how her students struggled with being understood. This motivated Monica to advocate for her students and to help them appreciate their roots and identity. “I need to let the children know that they are important and that they should be proud of their roots, proud of their home, proud of where they come from, proud of their culture, and feel happy that they have the ability to say I speak Spanish, I am currently learning English, and I will be able to learn. You have to remind children that they are capable of anything because they are and at any age” says Monica.
As a paraeducator, Monica also realized the significance of parent advocacy and involvement in the education of their children. She knew she had to find a way to reach parents in her community as well to further help her students. Wanting to do more for her community, in 2017, Monica joined the UConn People Empowering People (UConn PEP) program in Stamford. UConn PEP is an Extension program in the College of Agriculture, Health, and Natural Resources. It is an innovative personal and family development program with a strong community focus. UConn PEP builds on the unique strengths and life experiences of the participants. The program emphasizes the connection between individuals and community action.
Monica’s experience with UConn PEP has been life-changing. It has become the foundation that has helped her express her passion for empowering people. “UConn PEP was the starting point for the job I have now. I learned many tools. It was a mix of what I had already done in the school and UConn PEP gave me the opportunity to learn how to help people and empower them. In my case, especially mothers. It empowered me and now I can do the same for other people” says Monica.
A year after graduating from the UConn PEP program, Monica was recruited as a teacher for the Children’s People Empowering People (CPEP) program. Additionally, she also teaches courses for the Children’s Leadership Training Institute (CLTI). She is currently working to become a parent leader in Stamford and will complete her Parent Leadership Training Institute (PLTI) course in June. Although at times becoming a community leader can be challenging, Monica is glad that through UConn PEP she has learned how to be direct, and how to manage different situations and audiences.
As a parent educator Monica serves first-time mothers with newborns and children up to five years in age. Through in-person and virtual visits, Monica helps mothers learn about child development, the importance of the parent-child relationship and connects them to available resources in their community. For Monica, having this job is a dream come true. “It is very nice to arrive at the house that is the root. It is where I as the visitor can accompany the mother in the growth of the child and encourage her to do a great job with her children from the very beginning” says Monica. As a single mother herself, Monica understands how difficult raising a child can be. She has always pushed herself to do the best for her daughter and is constantly encouraging her mothers to believe in their own abilities, “I always make sure to tell them sí se puede (yes you can)” says Monica.
When asked why she believed empowering people was important Monica shared, “Empowering people is important because we all have an inner strength. We all have talent and capacity within us, sometimes life circumstances make us forget that. There are some talents that are hidden. There are some talents that are turned off. It has hurt me a lot that my community is not always seen as a community that provides support, but we are people that provide support. In the Hispanic community we support each other, we can contribute a lot, we have double capabilities”.
At the moment Monica is focused on completing her PLTI course and launching her project Helping You Get Started (HUGS). HUGS introduces the school system to new arrival families. Through home visits, Monica hopes to help parents with basic things like how to apply for free/reduced lunch to more complex situations such as how to communicate with teachers. To her, it’s really important that parents realize they have all the authority over any decision made regarding the education of their children. HUGS will bridge the knowledge gap and help parents gain confidence and find their voice. Monica’s second goal is to return to school and start working towards obtaining a Master’s degree in Social Work. With this degree she hopes to be able to serve and empower more populations.
“When you tell your story, many people can relate to it and learn. I hope with my story others think okay I’m in a similar, better, or worse situation and if one person could make it through, I can too,” Monica concludes.
Article by Ivette Lopez
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