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ERNIE BROWN JR. YACAC official wants Hispanics to follow her lead



Published: Sat, August 4, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



The office of Wilma V. Torres is a reflection of herself: neat and organized.

There are pictures of children and other reminders of her days as a Head Start teacher and assistant director of that program placed throughout the office.

Torres is director of planning and development for Youngstown Area Community Action Council, which has its headquarters in downtown Youngstown.

She has one of the agency's top four management positions. It is her job to support the agency's director in grant-writing efforts for YACAC's various programs, such as Head Start, home energy assistance and senior citizen services.

She has a master's degree in education and recently earned her master's degree in business administration, both from Youngstown State University.

Proud of heritage: Torres is proud of her Puerto Rican heritage and her accomplishments.

She wants other Hispanics to follow her lead.

She's concerned, however, that from what she's seen, there aren't many Hispanics, particularly Puerto Ricans, coming along to take up leadership positions in Youngstown.

"My message to young Hispanics is this: They must have a vision and become responsible for pursuing that vision," Torres said.

One of the ways to obtain the vision, she said, is education. "The value of education is such that no one can take that away from you. Education is portable. I can take it with me no matter where I go."

Another way to realize one's full potential is having a strong work ethic, said Torres, 42.

She said parents and those in leadership roles need to communicate by word and example that young people must work to get what they want.

"Getting my MBA was long, hard and tiring. But it was an educating experience. I never took my eyes off the prize, and I received my prize at the end," she said of her educational achievement.

Other advice she gives young people to achieve success is "having pride in where you come from, having faith in God, keeping your parents informed as to what's going on in school, and having pride in your [Hispanic] heritage."

Her background: Torres, who is single, grew up and still lives on the city's South Side. A graduate of South High School, she started at Head Start in 1971 and taught for six years.

Head Start is a federally funded program started in 1965 that provides comprehensive child development and family support services to more than 18 million low-income preschool children and their families. Those services include education, nutrition and transportation.

She later was promoted to assistant director for Mahoning County's Head Start program, a position she had for 13 years. She has been in her current YACAC position since last year.

On the rise: New 2000 census figures show that America's Hispanic population increased 58 percent during the 1990s, putting Hispanics in a virtual tie with black Americans as the nation's largest minority group. It is projected Hispanics and Latinos will become the nation's largest minority group by 2010.

Torres said that if Hispanics here are to become community leaders, young people must prepare themselves for that challenge.

Torres has a friend who recently asked several young Puerto Rican girls at church what they wanted to do with their lives.

The majority answer was to get married and have children, the friend said.

Torres said there is nothing wrong with that aspiration.

She said, however, she would ask the girls these questions: What happens if your husband dies or you get a divorce? How will you provide for yourself and your children?

Young Hispanic men also must throw off the macho image stereotype and seek to educate themselves, develop skills and become leaders.

More representation: "Youngstown still has a large Hispanic population. We should have more representation on school boards and government so there will be a voice to stand up and speak out for our people. If we don't do it, no one else will," she said.

"But we can't do that if we're not getting involved in the community, and the way to do that is by registering to vote, studying the issues and candidates on the ballot and then voting responsibly, and voting in every election."

ebrown@vindy.com




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