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Isela at the podium at the Transforming Lives Gala

In the words of our speaker at the Transforming Lives Gala:


My name is Isela Herrera. I am a Mercy Center participant and a devoted volunteer. I am also a mom, a wife, a sister, and an activist. I would like to share my story about new beginnings with you. A story about my life – as it has been transformed.


Twelve years ago I started a journey, never imagining just how difficult it would be. Just because of where I was born – not in the USA – and because of my last name – Herrera – I face so many difficulties. Twelve years ago, I had lost all my strength and all my hope. I was, in fact, very depressed. So on an eventful day, I decided to go for a walk on Willis Avenue. For the first time, I saw the Mercy Center, a building that looked very different from the rest of the buildings in the neighborhood. I thought maybe it was a library. It piqued my curiosity. At least, I had not lost my curiosity!


So I used what strength I had left and entered the building. I asked what they offered and learned about the upcoming English classes. At this point, I couldn’t even ask for a piece of chicken in English. After my first classes in English, my teacher Tim recommended that I stop taking English classes and start taking the business training classes Mercy Center offered. He told me that, if I put my mind to it, I could do anything I wanted to do. I did not fully understand his words until later on. Long story short, I ended up getting my first diploma in business training. Rosemarie McGrath was the director of business training at that time.


It was Rosemarie McGrath who truly gave me the gift of empowerment. This beautiful person, that I still remember with much love, called me to her office one day. I was trembling like a Jell-O. I thought she was to tell me that I did something wrong. To my surprise, she congratulated me for what I had accomplished and offered me my first volunteer job.


I was truly in shock. I gave her as many excuses as I could about why I thought I was not at all qualified to become a volunteer. But Rosemarie McGrath would not take no for an answer Rosemarie insisted that I was capable of doing anything I wanted, regardless of my insecurity. I was shocked that someone else actually believed in me.

Why was I selected for something that important?  Just a few months earlier, I could never have imagined such an honor. I was just another immigrant, whose dreams were broken without any hope.


Rosemarie McGrath’s simple request – that I volunteer – was my new beginning. It was my personal realization that I could do anything I dreamed of doing. And every time I feel exhausted, her words of encouragement come to my mind. The way she treated me with such respect and dignity reminded me that I was a person and not just a number. If it were not for her, I wouldn't be here tonight delivering a speech in English.


Today, I am a paralegal with an associate’s degree from CUNY. I am working hard toward my bachelor's degree and eventually a law degree.  It hasn't been easy at all. I had to walk a very rough path, shoeless, with my feet naked. I am grateful to have found people around me to give me shoes and to pave the road so I can keep on walking.


Because I am an immigrant, I can’t apply for scholarships or loans. I have had so many jobs; I cannot even count them all! I have been a maid, a waitress, and now a receptionist. I try my best to be a good mom and a student who can afford my college tuition. I know one day I will finish college and law school!  Even if I have to do it one class at a time.

I am still working toward my LPR. That is the legal term for Legal Permanent Residency. I use the proper legal terms, so I can create an illusion in my mind and convince myself that I can be a lawyer. Legal permanent residency is a challenge since our family income is low. We are not qualified to sponsor ourselves. So I need a company to be my sponsor. If any of you would like to volunteer, let’s talk!


There are still so many difficulties and so many challenges I face. But I am now addicted to challenges, because I know I can do it.  I have a voice inside my head telling me every single day, “Today is a new beginning. You are going to make it.”


I thank you all for supporting the Mercy Center tonight. Your generosity makes it possible for me to stand up here tonight. And not to just give a speech in English – but to be brave and fierce and proud enough to tell you my story. I know I am just around the corner of yet another new beginning…I wish all of you lots of new beginnings!  I hope you have a wonderful evening. Thank you so much, and God bless you all.


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