For One Latina, Volunteering is a Family Affair



As Care Coordinator for the Hispanic Health Council, it is Marilyn Cancel’s priority to provide support for mothers and children in need. When spoke with her, she had just taken a client out to Walmart to help her shop for her baby, who is due any day. Doing whatever it takes for a client is just a part of the impact Cancel leaves behind her on a daily basis.
When she goes home, she spreads her positive attitude and caring ways through special events and volunteer programs. But instead of taking on the task alone, Cancel makes volunteering a family affair. Since her four children were young, she said volunteering has held a special place within the family and has always been something they do together.
What work do you do for Latinos professionally?
I work with pregnant women and children up to age two. Most of my clients are in need of baby items and clothes. I look on Craigslist, I go wherever I need to go to get them the items they need. I take clients grocery shopping, whatever they need. I’m not usually the type of person to pat myself on the back, it’s just that if there’s something that needs to be done, my name comes up. Most of my clients are Latinos. I try to advocate for them, and if they don’t speak English, I do a lot of translation for them.
I always tell my clients that whether they have before or not, they can always volunteer.
What do you do for the community outside of work? What are you involved in?
I do a lot with my family to volunteer. I volunteer a lot for rides, like the Jim Calhoun Cancer Challenge Ride and Walk, we deliver turkeys during the holidays. Every time there’s an opportunity, my family volunteers for different events. It’s hard to put into words, but we do whatever it takes.
Many events we do are for cancer-awareness, my grandmother had pancreatic cancer and some friends had it, so it means more to me now, but I’ve always done them. Delivering turkeys was for the Latin community, and we got to talk to them in Spanish.
What has been one of your most rewarding experiences?
One of the most rewarding is when I organized and volunteered for a Christmas “Picture with Santa” event. My family and coworkers all volunteered. Families would come and get a present for their children and take a family photo with Santa. A lot of the families were very grateful for a family photo, it felt very special.
But, everything stands out because of everything that has to do with giving back.
When my husband lost his job several years ago around the holidays, we volunteered. For whatever reason, that was the best Christmas. We felt it, for whatever reason, and things just came to us. The kids thought it was really special. I just kept saying “Just believe, just believe.” Whenever we’re down in this family, we just think, “Lets give back, lets do something.”
Do you always volunteer as a family? Why is it so important to volunteer together?
Oh, I drag my family and my husband! He was Santa, he was the husky dog. We did a Spanish event in New Britain, one in New Haven. They’ve always volunteered with me. It’s really rewarding. It’s important to give back to your community. It’s a good feeling, and it’s needed. And a lot of the time, we’re the only Latinos that are there [volunteering].
It’s a way to shows your kids that not everyone has it as good as they may seem to.
We do a lot with people with special needs, we volunteer with them, we help with the Casa program. My grandma did it, so it’s embedded in us. I teach them to never look down on people, but to empower them.
Is volunteering something you hope will carry on as a family tradition?
I came from a family that volunteered, so it’s just nothing new to me. But I tell my kids, “Just get in there and get your hands dirty!”, and they like it. Then we come home and talk about what made each experience special. When they were teenagers people were shocked that they were so eager to volunteer. By their freshman year at New Britain High School, they had already completed their 21 hours of required community service.
I think they’ll pass the spirit of volunteering down to their own children. My oldest daughter has three little kids and we bring her oldest son, who is eight.
My kids are 29, 24, 19 and 18, and they all still want to be involved.
Why do you think it’s so important to work for change within the community? 
It’s about acceptance. Sometimes when my kids volunteered, they would feel like, “Oh, they don’t really need me,” but I tell them to help and it makes them feel good. At first they’re shy about it but they become empowered.
I try to tell my clients the same things. I think it’s needed. It takes more than just a couple of people to create a community; it takes all of us. Getting people to know they can make a difference and putting a smile on someone’s face. . . It’s addicting!