Serving the community comes from experiencing hard times; ‘I am my own example’
Fanny Villarreal, executive director of the YWCA in Syracuse, New York, knows what it’s like to go through hard times and start over.
“I was born and raised in Lima, Peru, but things happened in life that I ended up coming to America,” Villarreal said. “It was a culture shock, and I felt kind of isolated because I come from a totally different culture.”
At the age of 24, Villarreal had just graduated, had a promising job as a lawyer in Peru, and was engaged to a lieutenant colonel in the army; she seemed to have her life figured out. About a month before the wedding, her plans turned upside down when she found out her fiancé had cheated on her. Villarreal said she was in shock when she found out and didn’t know what to do, but she knew she couldn’t stay around the area. So in 1992, the 24-year-old Villarreal and her parents moved to Syracuse.
Villarreal’s older sister Nancy had moved to Syracuse many years earlier on a scholarship to get her master’s degree. Her older brother had followed soon after, so the family already had some ties to the city. Villarreal said when she moved to the U.S., she was still so devastated from her canceled wedding and lost career that she “just wanted to get a job where she didn’t have to think.” Her sister’s co-workers helped her get a job at Nojaim Brother’s Supermarket.
“Can you imagine my father? ‘I paid all this money for you to be a lawyer and now you’re at a supermarket!’” Villarreal said. “But I told him just to trust me, just give me time.”
When she moved to the U.S., Villarreal couldn’t speak any English even though she previously had visited her brother and sister in Syracuse a few times. While she was working at Nojaim’s, Villarreal started taking English night classes at Fowler High School.
“They were immersion classes, so everyone spoke different languages, but they were all trying to learn English,” Villarreal said. “That was the best thing I ever did.”
After a few months at Nojaim’s, Villarreal started working at Catholic Charities as a bilingual caseworker, which is how she got interested in nonprofit organizations. Villarreal says there are no nonprofits or welfare in Peru, so the poor people in Peru are truly desolate.
Villarreal has loved serving the community ever since. After three years at Catholic Charities, she served as executive director of the Spanish Action League from 1998-2003; her sister was one of the founders of the Spanish Action League.
Then Villarreal worked as a director at P.E.A.C.E., Inc. until 2009. After years of working at nonprofits and taking more English classes, Villarreal is now the executive director at the YWCA.
As executive director, Villarreal has many roles and responsibilities. She’s essentially in charge of managing and supervising all of the programs at the YWCA, as well as the budget, funding, human resources, reports and contracts. She also keeps in touch with the board of directors of the national YWCA.
“I’m very proud to have an awesome team here that not only believes in the mission, but they walk and breathe in the mission,” Villarreal said. “That’s when you’re successful. It’s not for the job or the money; it’s when they totally believe in the mission.”
The Syracuse YWCA aims to “eliminate racism, empower women, and promote peace and justice for all.” One of the YWCA’s main programs is providing shelter to 55 homeless women. The women live in apartments with individual bathrooms and kitchens that the YWCA rents.
As part of the program, the women participate in a 10-week life skills program that provides training on financial stability, how to create a resume, job interview skills and other areas that help them become positive members of the community. When they are ready to apply for jobs, the women apply to the YWCA first. They send in a resume and go in for a job interview; then, out of the group, the YWCA hires two women to work part time at the main desk for six months to one year. The women get the experience of a real job at the YWCA first, and then apply to other jobs somewhere else.
“It’s definitely been successful, because when they’re working here they know us, and are comfortable so they’re OK asking questions,” Villarreal said. “Whereas if they’re somewhere else they probably wouldn’t ask many questions because they think you’re supposed to know that already.”
In her work in the Syracuse community, Villarreal says she sees the concentrated poverty connected to her own experiences as an immigrant in the city.
“When people come from another country, they all live in one area because they want to be connected with their own culture,” she said.
But she says one of the main problems is that affordable housing is available only in those concentrated areas and not in other neighborhoods, so people depending on help are stuck there. Villarreal says from her experiences in the community, some landlords take advantage of people looking for affordable housing, especially those who are new to the area. Other landlords, she says, are great to work with and are flexible with her and her clients, but those houses and apartments are usually full. Regardless, Villarreal says she could find affordable housing only in certain parts of the city.
After leaving Peru more than 20 years ago, Villarreal is now living with her partner, Danny, whom she met at her first job at Nojaim’s. She has two children, 16-year-old Brian from a previous marriage, and 10-year-old Carlos with Danny. Villarreal said that having been married and divorced, she promised herself she would never get married again; she and Danny have been together for more than 12 years.
Villarreal says regardless of how hopeless the situation looks sometimes, it’s important to keep working for change. That’s why she loves her job at the YWCA — she gets to give back to people in the community.
“I love to be around people, and I love to help,” she said. “I tell (the ladies at the YWCA) my story and say that if I made it, I know anyone can make it. I am my own example.”