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A former Bolivian lawyer finds a new calling: helping immigrant women in Clearwater

CLEARWATER – Lawyer Virginia Obando worked as a congressional adviser in her home country of Bolivia before leaving nearly a decade ago when another political crisis enveloped the South American country ruled by the socialists.

Obando always kept a hand in the law after moving to Florida, working with immigration law firms and earning a master’s degree in international law in 2020 from Stetson University College of Law in St. Petersburg. But for five years, she took a more direct path to helping people get back on their feet — now as program director at the Hispanic Outreach Center in Clearwater.

One of Obando’s goals is to find ways to make ends meet for women who have immigrated to the United States, many of whom are single mothers, wives and victims of domestic violence. She helps them supplement their income through a program she designed over three years to make and sell jewelry.

“Each case is different, but they are united by a desire to learn and be useful in life,” Obando, 50, known as Vicky, told her friends. “Our women need to take a step forward and we are here to help them.”

Obando also helped the outreach center launch two new initiatives: a computer program for beginners and parents and free tax preparation. Computer classes begin March 29 with a group of 12 students, and tax assistance is available Fridays from 1-2 p.m. and Saturdays from 9 a.m.-7 p.m.

“We want to give them all the support and opportunities we can,” Obando said. “Why? because we are talking about a community that has many needs.

Twelve women attend the jewelry making classes, from Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Puerto Rico and Mexico. Their teacher is a Panamanian volunteer, Eneida LaTorre, 47.

“The good part is that each of these women puts their best heart and talent into it,” LaTorre said. “It’s heartwarming to see them move on and learn something new.”

Participants in the jewelry-making class at the Clearwater Hispanic Outreach Center include, from left, Mariana Perez, 40; Yuriana Cruz, 37; and teacher Enaida LaTorre, 47. [ JUAN CARLOS CHAVEZ | Times ]

She credits Obando with promoting various initiatives that bring together Hispanic families and the Hispanic community.

“Vicky has been a big help so I can continue with jewelry making classes,” LaTorre said. “She finds us sponsors to finance this course and offers us breakfast every Wednesday. She was and is an inspiration to everyone.

One of the women now making jewelry is Rocío Jiménez, a 45-year-old Mexican mother of three who works eight to ten hours a day in a fast food restaurant. Jiménez, looking for something more challenging in the post-pandemic world, joined the jewelry-making group and learned about tools, materials, and design.

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“Who wouldn’t want to earn a little more money for us and our families? said Jimenez. “All of us, because we want to improve our lives.”

Jiménez contracted COVID-19 nine months ago and was very ill for two weeks. She feels comfortable with her new group, meets new friends and knows that it can open new doors for her. One of her top priorities is her youngest daughter, Alondra, 16, mother of a 10-month-old baby girl.

“It’s been a tough year for everyone,” Jiménez said. “We have to wake up again.”

Another member of the group is Maritza De los Santos, a 61-year-old immigrant from the Dominican Republic who has three adult children. De los Santos started working in a restaurant when she moved to Clearwater five years ago, but now she cleans houses, five days a week.

Making promises of jewelry to help supplement her income and make new friends, she said: “You work, laugh and talk. It’s nice and it feels like a real family.

Gloria Reyes, 56, moved from Puerto Rico to Florida after Hurricane Maria damaged her home in 2017. Reyes learned about Obando’s programs through teacher LaTorre, whom Reyes met in a local church.

“Since I started my jewelry classes, I feel happier,” Reyes said. “It serves as therapy and escape for us who often don’t have as many friends as we would like.”

Debora De Beer, a member of the group and a Venezuelan doctor, hopes to see the programs expanded to other places.

Debora De Beer, who has worked as a doctor in Venezuela, would like to see classes like the ones she takes at the Clearwater Hispanic Outreach Center expanded to other locations.
Debora De Beer, who has worked as a doctor in Venezuela, would like to see classes like the ones she takes at the Clearwater Hispanic Outreach Center expanded to other locations. [ JUAN CARLOS CHAVEZ | Times ]

Five years ago, she and her husband came to Tampa to escape the economic and humanitarian decline of their native country. They now have a 4-year-old daughter but have started divorce proceedings.

At a time like this, De Beer said, for all the participating women, the jewelry class and counselor Vicky are “the best.”

“We are united by the desire to improve and overcome our problems,” De Beer said. “It’s not easy but it’s a good start.”

In Bolivia, Obando worked with the House of Representatives from 2002 to 2006, managing projects and providing legal advice and assistance to members.

After moving to Florida, Obando worked as a bilingual legal aide at two immigration law firms, helped victims of domestic violence, and led initiatives to involve more Hispanic women in their communities. She is a full board member of the Literacy Council of Upper Pinellas, a voluntary, non-profit organization that teaches literacy and social skills to people 16 and older.

Married with a 15-year-old son, Obando credits her own parents with instilling in her a desire to serve the community. Father Walter Obando, 81, worked every day, including weekends, in his car business or helped his Bolivian community in some way. His mother, Fanny Sánchez, 81, is a cancer survivor, devoted to her family and her four children. They now live in Florida.

“They gave us everything,” Obando said. “They set an example by working.”