A collaboration with Projecto Nacer in Puerto Rico
by Maritza Raimundi-Petroski
I clearly remember the sound of her voice across the room as she introduced herself at the beginning of the workshop presentation. I immediately knew she was from Puerto Rico. I loved the idea that a fellow Boricua would be leading a discussion on how to address vulnerability from a Family-Centered Approach. Often as a professional Latina woman attending large national conferences, I have felt lonely, excluded, and overpowered by the majority around me. Yet, she was confident in her skin, and in turn, I felt empowered by her presence. Her name was Anayra Túa-López, and she was wearing a sharp white pants suit, a fantastic-looking suit even before Hillary Clinton made it a thing. Even better than the suit, the program she was highlighting was as unique as her name!
Learning about the Proyecto Nacer's Family Incubator Model and their concept of "premature families" uplifted my spirits. There was something about the story, something about this organization, that truly resonated with me. Perhaps it was the fact that this was a program based on the island or that my sister was a teenage mother; maybe it was the passion from which she spoke about the program, the testimonies of the teen parents she shared, or the fantastic program outcomes. Looking back, it doesn't matter what the initial connection was; what matters are the years after that initial encounter. That was 2015, and fast forward to 2021, and the same passion that created this imaginary bridge between the island and the diaspora is as strong as ever.
After the workshop, we exchanged contact information and connected a few times via email, made plans to meet again during next year's conference, and even had lunch together and shared stories about short and long-term professional aspirations. When I visited the island a year later, I was graciously invited to tour the facilities of Proyecto Nacer. I was welcomed with open arms by Anayra and by her mother, Mayra, the true inspiration for creating this organization which this year celebrates its 20th anniversary. I was in love with the concept and the hopeful future I saw walking up and down the halls holding hands with loving toddlers who had been given the best possible start in life despite their parents' circumstances and against all odds.
When Hurricane María devastated the island in 2017, we communicated by phone and shared resources making sure that support was felt across the Caribbean Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean, and promised to keep in touch. In 2019 when I embarked on a new journey as a co-founder of MAPA Collaborative, LLC, Anayra was one of the first people to congratulate me. When we did our first round of Community Engagement Conversations in Honor of Hispanic Heritage Month in 2020, she did not hesitate to give me a resounding yes, when I extended an invitation to serve as one of our guests. Today, after serving for over a decade as the CEO of Proyector Nacer, she now holds the title of Dr. Túa-López. She leads one of the largest youth organizations on the island, and I couldn't be prouder of her accomplishments.
Last month I made my second visit to Proyecto Nacer. This time, I brought my husband, daughter, and goddaughter to witness the magic inside the classrooms and along the hallways. I wanted them to notice hope, progress, determination, and entrepreneurial spirit. I wanted them to see how they nurtured their souls. I wanted them to see what second chances look like. As I toured the facilities again through a different lens, I felt a deeper connection and appreciation for the work I get to do with MAPA Collaborative, LLC alongside my business partner, Paula. Together we find ourselves in a position to pay it forward through the establishment of four different scholarships in honor of our loved ones: The Emerito Figueroa Memorial Scholarship in honor of Paula's father, The Félix Raimundi Resto Memorial Scholarship in honor of my father, The Melissa Hernández Nazario Memorial Scholarship in honor of my best friend and The María Virginia Arcelay Valentín Memorial Scholarship in honor of my grandmother. Since my grandmother's passing, lovingly known as Miña, I knew that someday I would honor her memory and find ways to express my gratitude for all the opportunities that I've been given throughout the years. I now realize that it was not a coincidence for me to have been part of that workshop in 2015, a year after my grandmother's death. I now know that my journey to pay it forward began with a specific purpose. My most recent visit to the island was to award two scholarships in honor of my grandmother to deserving teen parents who would enroll at a four-year college in Puerto Rico after completing their journey at Proyecto Nacer.
As I gave my speech, I could see the two students surrounded by their support system, including the extended family they had built at Proyecto Nacer. I was overcome by emotions while trying to keep my composure at the thought of my grandmother's face framed by her silver hair and who lived to be 101. While I looked to my left, I could see a glimpse of my teenage daughter and my goddaughter attentively listening while my husband's approval peeked through his glasses. On my right, I could see the administration and faculty members at Proyecto Nacer. While I was holding the plaques with the names of Alondra Delgado Báez and Carielyz Rivera Class, I could hear Anayra's explanation from six years ago about a "family-centered approach," in the background, like an archived memory coming to life in a hologram. It was my family that brought me through the doors of Proyecto Nacer in 2016 and then again last month. It was my family values, my grandmother's perseverance despite only achieving an 8th-grade education in Puerto Rico that guided me back to that place. The friends you call family made it possible for me to have my own business. It was my family who sacrificed everything for me to come to the United States to search for a better life and more significant academic opportunities. Family was indeed at the heart of every decision.
The visit was short but packed with warmth, special details, and familiar touches that have left a permanent imprint in my life and have recalibrated my compass. I'm more confident now of what my north looks like, and I'm willing to embrace change with the giddy anticipation of the unknown. While the photos may tell a story of recognition and collaboration between a non-profit organization on the island and a managing consulting firm on the mainland, the real story is about making lasting connections that bring meaning and purpose to your life. It is only by giving that you know how to receive, and we are excited that deserving students can continue to thrive and make a difference in this world through our scholarships. Abuela would be proud!
MAPA is a woman and minority-owned business. Proyecto Nacer has been designated as the yearly recipient of The MarÍa Virginia Arcelay Valentín Memorial Scholarship. Students registered at Proyecto Nacer who meet the application criteria are welcomed to apply once a year. To apply for one of our scholarships, visit our website at www.mapacollab.com.