As a young girl in Cuba, Milagros Betharte says she dreamt about becoming a teacher one day. Arriving in the U.S. as a young woman, Milagros worked to realize her dream, but says she was not alone on that journey.
“The fear for me was being brand new in the U.S,” says Milagros. “The college system was completely new, I was also learning English. It seemed like an immense task. I had people who helped me. They showed me the steps and broke it down for me, and I was able to follow those steps, register for classes, and become a lifelong teacher, which I’d wanted to be since I was a little girl.”
Retiring several years ago after a long career as a bilingual math teacher, the 70-year-old New Rochelle, New York resident says she’s now fulfilling a promise to pay forward the kindness shown to her all those years ago as a new immigrant, and in turn, is helping to make the dreams of other young New Yorkers come true.
“I always said when I had the time I wanted to return those favors. Now that I am retired, I have the time to help people in the community. This is the same community I taught math in during my career. It takes a community to raise a child. I think all of us have to work to help these children.”
As a volunteer with the Community Service Society of New York, Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP), Milagros has helped dozens of students as they study for the High School Equivalency (HSE) exam. Supporting children of incarcerated parents or juveniles who have faced an interruption in their education, the mentoring and tutoring Milagros is doing is critical to the future success of these students, some going on to college and many securing jobs so they in turn can positively contribute to their community. Calling her volunteerism a “beautiful circle” where she is able to strengthen her community, Milagros says in supporting these students, her skills as an experienced educator is motivating them towards goals they might not have worked towards otherwise.
“They have this fear, and as mentors, we help them stay on track for their goals. Because they don’t have a connection with older adults, some of them could drop out (of school) again. We encourage them and work with them to keep them connected, stay working towards their goals, so they see they can do it. Volunteering is how you build a community. If those students can become professionals, and then work in their community, this is how we build it.”
Milagros is helping to supplement skills and knowledge for these students, who often need more individualized time, as they study for the HSE. Taking students from frightened to confident in their skills is a process of encouragement, says Mary Anne Flanagan, Project Director, RSVP – Community Service Society of New York, that is life-changing not just for the students, but often, for their families as well.
“By meeting one-on-one with young people, she’s able to provide inspiration, motivation and skills for them to use in the future,” says Mary Anne. “In simple terms, she provides support so they can get past the (HSE) exam and go on to college. For many, they’re the first in their family to be able to go to college as well as provide skills so they can apply for jobs or get jobs. She has worked in the last five years with 35 young people, and this past year, (one of her mentees) got into Columbia University. To get into an Ivy League school was a huge win. We were all crying.”
Her impact is matched only by her energy, says Mary Anne, as Milagros puts her skills to action in lifting up students with caring service.
“Her energy and laughter is contagious. She lights up a room, I’m not exaggerating. Everybody walks away knowing Milagros. She really listens to the young people before she even worries about what their goals are. She has incredible empathy and she always sees potential and possibility in every young person she meets. She never gives up on any of the young people she works with.”
Milagros, who is also a volunteer with the Next Door Project, where she helps adults with conviction histories to request, read and repair their rap sheets, which can help to open doors to employment, housing, and stability, is continuing her important work even throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, by focusing on keeping these vulnerable young students on track despite not being able to meet with them in person. When asked what she’d tell the 20-year-old Milagros, newly arrived to the U.S., now, given her tremendous life experiences, she says she’d encourage her young self to never give up, a sentiment she echoes to all of her students as well.
“Never give up. That’s what I’d tell the 20-year-old me. Something may look difficult but it’s not necessarily so, and there are people out there that can help you.”
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Milagros Betharte? Find local volunteer opportunities.