Dulce Rojas of SEPA Mujer, center, with four SEPA Mujer summer youth employment program graduates at Sisters of St. Joseph in Brentwood on Monday, from left: Monica Sagastune Rios, Lauren Gutierrez, Veronica Castillo and Amy Vera. Photo: Maria Piedrabuena

This week marked the culmination of a seven-week, Suffolk County-sponsored summer youth employment program where several non-profit organizations—SEPA Mujer, Make The Road NY, S.T.R.O.N.G Youth and ECLI (Empowerment Collaborative of Long Island)—partnered to provide special training and teach leadership skills to Latina youth.

“It’s a very important program because it gives our youth the opportunity to learn skills they’ll be able to use moving forward and hopefully it will also provide them a glimpse of the job opportunities that exist,” said New York Civil Liberties Union Suffolk County Chapter director Irma Solis.

SEPA Mujer executive director Martha Maffei explained that after last year’s surge in disappearances of young Latina girls, as well as the gang-related murders of young girls in Brentwood, they realized that as an organization they needed to better focus on this demographic. She said that young Latina girls’ empowerment was key to transform their communities and the only way to do that is to invest in them.

“Many times we only look at the youth that is already involved in gangs, but we don’t see the collateral effects of that or what led them to that path,” she said. “There are many young Latina girls that are being intimidated or coerced and we need to talk about them and help them,” she said.

That goal said Maffei was a two-step process.

First, in collaboration with the other non-profit organizations, they created this year’s summer youth program that allowed each of the five 14- to 16-year-old girls selected to work on special projects that affect Latina women in Suffolk County, from workers’ rights and human trafficking to language access and domestic violence help referral guides.

SEPA Mujer community organizer Dulce Rojas said that the girls’ projects will be implemented at SEPA as new programs or help strengthen the ones that are already in place.

“I was amazed at the girls. They surprised all of us, they took these hard topics and ran with it. They came to the office with their minds and their hearts open,” she said.

The second part of the process came to life thanks to the efforts that these five girls put into the planning, research and development of a new, more permanent program called Girls A.C.T (Activating, Creating, Transforming), that would be a continuation of SEPA Mujer’s primary goal of assisting and empowering Latina youth.

“The goal is to be able to create safe spaces where Latina youth are able to talk about their issues and through them find out what is happening in their communities too,” said Rojas.

The new pilot program would consist of 10 sessions that would run from November to June and would provide guidance to about 25 girls with topics that affect youth such as drugs, sexuality, gangs, dating violence, LGBTQ issues and voting rights, among others, and would hopefully be co-led by one of this week’s graduates, said Maffei.

“In addition we also want to take the girls to museums and to New York City. We want to make them feel like an important part of the community and the country. We want them to connect with others and become engaged,” she said.

Monica Sagastune Rios, with her mother Rosa Rios and her younger sister and brother.
Photo: Maria Piedrabuena

Fourteen-year old Riverhead resident Monica Sagastune Rios, one of this week’s graduates, was one of the main creators of the Girls A.C.T program, as well as a language access program.

“Monica is a very strong girl, she is very knowledgeable and has had a great impact,” Maffei said.

From a young age, the poised and mature Monica says she knew she wanted to make a difference and assist others any way she could.

She has a drive born out of a traumatic personal experience — she witnessed her mother’s struggles as a domestic violence victim and it was thanks to the help of others that they were able to escape that situation.

“It was very hard for me as a small child and I realized how important it is to have organizations like SEPA Mujer. So many women don’t know where to go or what to do,” Monica said. “Once women get the help they need they turn around and help others and that is beautiful,” she said.

The idea behind Girls A.C.T she said was to find girls and empower them and help them fight for what they believe in.

“It doesn’t matter if you are young or what your ethnicity is; your voice has power. You can make a difference in someone’s life and Girls A.C.T will be the perfect program to raise awareness and reach other Latina girls,” Monica said.

Maffei said that right now SEPA Mujer is engaged in fundraising efforts to fund the program, which will cost an estimated $30,000.

“We want to be able to pay the leader of the program, which will hopefully be one the girls that graduated from the summer program, as well as have enough money for training and day trips,” she said.

SEPA Mujer will soon lose one of its main sponsors, the Hagerdorn Foundation, which will close its doors after 24 years in October. Maffei said it is very important to find other ways to provide the services the community needs.

“When Latina women and Latina youth start to rise, whole families and whole communities rise with them,” said Rojas.

“I know many young Latina girls feel the same way I do. We want to make the world a better place,” Monica said.

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Maria del Mar Piedrabuena
María del Mar is a contributor to RiverheadLOCAL and the editor and founder of Tu Prensa Local, a Spanish-language local news outlet on Long Island. Maria has won several awards for her work, including a first place best column award from the New York Press Association. Email Maria