Posted April 1, 2022
It was a short walk to the post office and a simple task. Mildred Gonzalez, who goes by Milly, lived at her sister’s house, which was just down the block. Her sister sent Milly, 19 at the time, to buy a stamp and mail a letter.
Milly had just moved from Puerto Rico to Lorain County to help her sister care for her children and didn’t speak English. But Milly’s sister had sent Milly on errands before and, just like all the others, had prepared her, telling her how to say the necessary phrases in English.
“But when I got to the post office, I realized she didn’t tell me how to say stamp,” Milly recalls. “And then it was my turn at the counter, and I started panicking.”
She smiles as she re-tells the post office story that happened more than 30 years ago. And she laughs about how she kept pointing to the upper right corner of the envelope where the stamp would go and saying the word stamp over and over again, in Spanish. The post office worker understood and within minutes Milly was on her way.
But that moment left a lasting mark on Milly. And the action she took afterward would send her on a path she never quite expected, one in which she found a permanent home in Lorain County and the opportunity to pursue her passion for helping youth.
All for family
Milly says maybe it’s her Puerto Rican culture, but family means everything to her. So, when she got the call about her sister having been in an accident and needing help with her two children, Milly dropped everything.
“I came here in 1988 with $20 in my pocket,” she says. “I put my education on hold to come help my family.”
Milly was pursuing a degree in elementary education at the time. She had completed two years at a university in Puerto Rico and figured she would take nine months off – one semester and the summer – and then go back to finish her education.
But once she was here, Milly says little moments added up to her life taking a completely different direction. Shortly after her trip to the post office, Milly began taking basic English courses for free at Whittier Middle School. The language came easy to her – something she wasn’t expecting.
“I kind of started to fall in love with the English language,” Milly says.
She also found herself thinking differently about Lorain County, which was supposed to be a temporary home.
“I really liked the way things were different here and I guess at that time in my life I was ready for a change,” she says. “And it was nice to be back with my family who I had not seen for so many years.”
As Milly began contemplating making the move permanent, she also began expecting more from herself. While the basic courses equipped her with enough English to converse casually, another little life moment – this time a doctor’s visit – proved she still couldn’t communicate on her own. Milly needed her sister to come to her appointment and interpret.
That dependency didn’t sit well with the otherwise independent Milly.
“I said to myself, ‘If I’m going to stay here, is this how I want it to be? Do I want to have an interpreter with me everywhere I go, for everything?”
Forming bonds at LCCC
When Milly learned about Lorain County Community College’s English as a Second Language program, she enrolled at once. She spent two years completing the program and, in the process, found a second family at LCCC.
“My teacher, who spoke about five languages, was an incredible teacher,” Milly says of Arin Mares-Manton.
Mares-Manton didn’t simply teach Milly the English language, she encouraged Milly to assume roles at the college that would allow her to continue practicing her English-speaking skills well after the day’s lesson. Once she was ready, Milly took – and passed – her written test and was ready to continue her education. She finished what she had started in Puerto Rico and earned her associate degree in elementary education and pre-professional psychology.
Milly then transferred to The Ohio State University to earn her bachelor’s degree in education. But at the time the university only offered a master’s program and Milly wasn’t ready for that. She switched majors to child and family studies. Milly was in her last year when she started missing the family she moved to Lorain County for and the family she found at LCCC.
“OSU was so big – I was one of 64,000 students,” Milly says. “I kept searching for the connection I found at LCCC.”
Milly left OSU, moved back to Lorain County, and transferred to Cleveland State University. She earned her bachelor’s degree in child and family studies from CSU in 1998. Milly says the experience at three different colleges solidified what she values in a college campus.
“When I talk to youth, my family, my friends about the three universities I went to, I always say LCCC was my favorite,” Milly says. “Here I found myself a family.”
The opportunity to make a difference
Milly found her passion for helping youth well before she started at the Lorain County Juvenile Court, where she works today.
It was in 1989 – one year after she came to Lorain County – that El Centro, the Latino non-profit advocacy organization enhancing the socio-economic status of the Greater Lorain County community, gave her the opportunity to take part in a summer youth program called Project Success.
She was one of two teachers working with at-risk youth and when the summer ended, El Centro offered her a position to stay. The experience gave Milly a perspective into young lives she says that some choose to overlook.
“It is easy to judge when you don’t have that contact with the youth themselves,” Milly says. “But when you do, you get to discover that there’s a lot more to it than just the behavior that they’re portraying.”
After Milly graduated from CSU, she applied for a position with the Lorain County Juvenile Court and was hired as a court-school liaison. Milly held that position for two years and in 2000 became a probation officer. She spent 14 years in that role before moving to diversion specialist. Milly loved her job, helping to prevent youth from ever needing the probation officer she once was.
“Today diversion is huge,” Milly says. “There are so many amazing ways in which the program is growing within juvenile court.”
Eventually, Milly was transferred back to probation officer, where she serves today. She’s also a specialist for the Payback Program, where juveniles complete community service at a nonprofit organization as a way to make restitution to community for their crimes, while the County supplies monetary support to the victims.
“It’s a positive impact,” Milly says. “A lot of these families don’t have the resources to pay back the money out of their pocket. So, to have the opportunity to do community service to pay back…they take advantage of it.”
Milly says another positive impact is the collaboration that happens between the youth and local non-profit agencies. She knows the power of connections having made many at LCCC and El Centro decades ago. Milly leans on those connections every day in her job.
“When you sit with someone and to talk to them, other issues come about,” Milly says. “And that’s when I use my knowledge to inform them of the opportunities that are available to them. Many of them they have no idea that these opportunities are out there or that all it takes is a simple referral or a phone call.”
Milly is happy to make those phone calls, especially if they lead to one in return, in the future.
“I get many phone calls, sometimes even visits from juveniles after years of them being released,” Milly says. “They come back looking for me to say thank you, to give me a hug, and to tell me that they’re appreciative of what I did for them. It’s incredible. It makes everything worth it.”