VIDEO: Silvestry is moving on

Published 10:20 am Friday, February 20, 2009

For the first time in Liliana Silvestry’s life, she is taking steps forward with her eyes closed.

As the only executive director the Welcome Center has had in its nine-year existence, Silvestry is moving into unfamiliar territory. On Feb. 12, she married John Doucette, a supervisor at Austin Packaging Co., in Las Vegas and her new husband has accepted a job in St. Joseph, Mo.

Although her husband will head a new division at the Triumph Foods, Inc. plant — “a great opportunity in something he loves to do,” Silvestry said — she is keeping her options open for a job of her own.

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“I would love to continue to do this work, if I had the opportunity,” she said. “This line of work is just who I am.”

Silvestry, 48, was born in Italy and raised in Puerto Rico. She moved to the United States in 1997 and has two sons in Austin and four grandchildren.

She has lived in Austin since 2000, when she was brought here by city officials and Apex Austin from a non-profit community center in South Bend, Ind. to head a new organization that would transition immigrants and refugees into the area.

Since its beginnings when Silvestry was its only employee, the Welcome Center has had as many as seven staff, although it had to reduce that number to five as a result of the struggling economy.

“Originally, the idea was to provide services in referring and welcoming newcomers,” she said.

“It was booming because we were bilingual; we were able to connect,” Silvestry explained. “Since then, we have been helping the emerging population.”

The Welcome Center has served 2,000-3,000 people in the past year, Silvestry said, by means such as interpretation and medical, social, community, legal, financial and educational services. The organization also provides crisis intervention, bilingual intake assistance, advocacy and English as a Second Language classes.

When the center opened, the focus was serving single men, who were the primary immigrant population. The common perception was that these individuals brought with them drinking problems and a lack of responsibility, “which is not the case,” Silvestry said.

“The unique thing that happened when we opened the Welcome Center … little by little we start seeing that the single men … were bringing their families in and establishing themselves here,” she said. “We had a lot of young families, and we had a lot of young kids.

“They deserve a safe house. They deserve a safe job. They should go to school,” Silvestry said.

Austin has not only a growing Hispanic population, but a diverse mix of cultures ranging from Chinese to Peruvian.

Silvestry said she is a strong believer that every community should have a welcome center.

“We have had immigrants coming to this country since the beginning,” she said.

The community’s response to the center hasn’t always been with open arms, and Silvestry acknowledges a small group expresses that animosity.

“They don’t want change,” she said. “That change is coming, regardless.”

“What we do is help people,” Silvestry said. “We don’t advocate for people who commit crimes. We’re just looking to really make sure that we can lower disparities.”

Silvestry said there will likely be a career in her future in St. Joseph, a city a little bigger than Rochester. The company her husband will work for has more than 2,000 employees; 38 percent are minorities.

Silvestry said it is hard to start her life over in a new community, but she is up for the challenge.

“I work with great people,” she said. “The community also has excellent people.”

Welcome Center board chairman Mark Stevens said Austin is “losing a tremendous asset.”

“I hate to see her go,” he said. “She’s been there since the get-go, and she built it up to what it is today. She’s not afraid of the devil himself.”

Stevens said the board has been “tossing around some names” for her replacement, but they will definitely conduct a search as well for a new director.

A farewell party will be held for Silvestry Friday, March 27 from 4 to 7 p.m. at El Mariachi. Her last day at the Welcome Center will likely be March 27.

Silvestry said she is not concerned about what the future holds for the Welcome Center.

“It will continue as it is today,” she said. “Everything’s in place. Hopefully the person who comes in will have their heart with the people.

“We had a lot of accomplishments, and I am proud of it,” Silvestry said. “It’s my baby.”