By Nicole Mason
A native of Puerto Rico, Ileana Velazquez moved to the New York City at the age of three. She is the third of five children born in to a loving and humble family. Throughout her youth Ileana was involved in many causes, like tutoring low income children in after school programs and organizing a Latino student organization at Lehman College.
In 1976 she moved to Danbury Connecticut where she quickly became active in community service efforts, serving as a board member on Connecticut Action Community Development agency, the Hispanic Center in Danbury, the Fairfield County Community Foundation, and many others.
She is also the founder of the Latino Scholarship Fund, Inc. in Danbury.
After moving to Danbury, Ileana noticed that Latino students in the area were not advancing on to a college-level education after high school at the same rate as their peers. Feeling strongly about the need to change the statistic, she spearheaded the effort to begin the Latino Scholarship Fund, Inc. in 1994. Over the years the Latino Scholarship Fund has given out over $700,000 worth of scholarships to over 400 kids in the surrounding Danbury area.
Can you introduce yourself and explain your connection to the Latino community?
I was born in Puerto Rico; came to New York when I was three years old. Then, all of my early years in New York, I went to public school and went to Lehman College. Eventually, I got a full scholarship to New York University where I got my masters in social work. I got married shortly after that and three years later moved to Danbury, CT in 1976.
I grew up in a family that was very aware of the social conditions of Latinos. My mom and my dad were both very civic minded. My father had a very strong opinion about classism and discrimination. That was my environment so I didn’t really have a choice. I had to develop a social conscience.
When I got to Danbury I didn’t want to just spend my time working and coming home so I kind of sought out what there was to do. I started by doing some volunteer work at the Hispanic Center in Danbury. Then I got involved in what was the first local Commission on the Status of Women for several years. I’ve done a lot of volunteer work over the years; but in 1994 was when I decided to get involved in education and put together the Latino Scholarship Fund.
What inspired you to become involved in the Latino community?
I grew up in a home where both my parents were very concerned about the social conditions. My dad, in particular, had been very active politically in Puerto Rico. Discussions in my home were constant around issues of racism, discrimination, classism; that was just the way I was raised. I certainly grew up understanding that not everybody was fortunate enough to have had opportunity and that there were many people who were deprived of equal opportunity.
If I had to attribute it to anybody I would say, “Thank you Mom and Dad for having given me the foundation for social activism.”
What is your role in the Latino Scholarship Fund, Inc.?
Up until recently I was the Chairperson; I now am the Co-chairperson because at the end of the year I will be stepping down from my role as Co-chair, and will probably be stepping off the board completely, because I am getting ready to move out of state. We’ve been in Connecticut since 1976 and I’ve come to the point where it’s time to move on to other things, so my husband and I are moving to Florida. I will probably get involved in volunteer work there and I wouldn’t be surprised if I get involved in education again.
Do you plan on opening another branch of your organization in Florida?
I don’t think I will be opening another branch but I certainly will scope the lay of the land, and if I see that I find that Latinos are not doing what they should be doing in regards to achievements I wouldn’t be surprised if I get involved once again. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if I do something to develop something new or join something, if there’s something to join, that addresses academic achievement of Latino students.
What advice for success do you have for Latinos?
I would say work hard, follow your dreams and don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do it because you can. Don’t be embarrassed to ask for help. And there’s a time to party and a time to work your butt off. You can do it all!