In the early '90s, three women from different parts of Latin America moved their families to Charlotte. They came, in part, to send their children to American universities. But their dreams were cut short by a painful reality: College education here was more much expensive than they had anticipated.
So, they threw a party.
Cecilia Montero, Sara Wolfe and Cecilia Ramirez founded the Latin American Women's Association, a local nonprofit that raises scholarship money for immigrants or first- and second-generation Americans through an annual party they dubbed "Carnival," named for the famous Brazilian celebration. Now in its 21st year, the organization has raised about $500,000 for 179 students. Each recipient - about 30 annually - is given up to $2,500 per year of school. The organization will celebrate Carnival 2013 this Saturday, Feb. 9, at the Hilton in Uptown.
The women eventually handed the reigns of the organization to Ana Lemley, board member and president since May 2012, and Violeta Moser, the current executive director. Both came to the U.S. from Peru in the '70s.
"One reason immigrants come to this country is for opportunities," Moser said from the organization's small Ballantyne office. "The drive for the women to do this, to create this organization, was to give that opportunity to their children."
Five years ago the organization broadened its scope, creating programs at various local public school that tackle issues children of immigrants and their families often face, including poor academic performance and cultural awareness issues. For example, one program - Padres y Padrinos (Parents and Godparents) - provides tutors to elementary-school students and parenting sessions to engage families in the educational process. Another program, Dancing for Diversity, teaches students cultural awareness through a universally known activity.
"Through dancing we can teach them the history and background of where they come from...so their self-esteemed is improved. We also open the program to their peers," Moser said.
Moser and Lemley see their organization as a necessity that caters to the fastest growing population in Charlotte. About 6,000 Latinos, mostly Cubans, lived in Charlotte in 1990. Now about 96,000, from a variety of Latin countries, call the Queen City home.
Lemley and Moser brought on scholarship-recipient Luisa Agathon as the organization's program coordinator after the Colombia native graduated from Queens University in 2010.
"It's great to know that a Latin organization is supporting Latinos," Agathon said. "It's great to know that we have a support system behind us that looks just like us, speaks the same language. That makes us feel powerful."