Siris Barrios, left, Sean McLean and Angela Huneault of Riverside Rediscovered. Photo: Maria Piedrabuena

SEPA Mujer (Services for the Advancement of Women), a nonprofit organization that looks to empower women through a wide array of programs—from civic engagement and leadership training to legal counseling for victims of domestic violence and others—will have its annual black-tie gala and awards event Thursday at Giorgio’s in Baiting Hollow.

The organization will commemorate its 24-year anniversary by celebrating with their East End members—about 250 across the East End— and other allies and will also honor local women and organizations who “have paved the way,” said SEPA Mujer executive director Martha Maffei.

“We want to recognize the people who’ve had a role in the community and that have helped improve the lives of local women,” Maffei said.

This year’s theme for the gala is “We are the Movement” and highlights the importance of partnerships and membership, said Maffei.

One of those partners is Renaissance Downtowns’ Riverside Rediscovered, a community-driven initiative that focuses on redeveloping the Riverside area, which is the recipient of the Partnership of the Year award. Riverside Rediscovered hosts the SEPA Mujer Riverside-Flanders monthly chapter meeting in its Peconic Avenue offices and helps the nonprofit with logistics and outreach.

“We not only give them a big thank you for believing in us and helping us open our newest and third chapter in Riverside but also applaud their hard work in Riverside-Flanders —making a better community for all,” SEPA community organizer Dulce Rojas said in a statement.

“We are honored to be recognized by SEPA Mujer,” Riverside Rediscovered community liaison Siris Barrios said. ”It has been a mutually beneficial relationship in advancing the leadership of women in our community,” she said.

Leadership comes from providing local women the guidance they need and helping them achieve their full potential, said Maffei.

“If it wasn’t for SEPA Mujer, it would have been impossible for me to be here today. They have helped me so much. I feel very grateful,” SEPA Mujer member Noemi Sanchez said.

Noemi Sanchez, who was honored as member of the year in 2016, is a compelling example of the difference community support and training can make in a woman’s life. Photo: Maria Piedrabuena

Sanchez, a success story from every perspective, came to SEPA Mujer as a victim of domestic violence.

“Noemi’s story is one of courage and determination. She overcame an incredibly hard situation against very tough odds,” said Maffei.

Married since she was 16 years old, Sanchez decided to leave her husband when he was arrested and sent to jail for unrelated charges eight years ago. She said she endured so much abuse through 15 plus years of marriage and she was so afraid that it wasn’t until he was sent to jail for a few months that she could gather the courage to leave.

“The woman you see before you has nothing to do with the woman I was. I was broken,” said Sanchez.

A year and a half later, in February of 2011, when her husband was released from prison, she told him she didn’t want anything to do with him when he contacted her.

The threats escalated quickly and when Sanchez called the police she was referred to The Retreat, a nonprofit that provides domestic violence and sexual assault services on eastern Long Island. They helped her file an order of protection when she explained her history of domestic violence, but it wasn’t enough.

“He came in the middle of the night. He tried to kill me. I was very worried for my children,” Sanchez said. “He shot me with an air gun. I still have the pellet stuck in my skull.”

Sanchez was referred to SEPA Mujer’s legal aid services for victims of domestic violence, but she said she quickly found many other programs that were just as important.

During the course of the last five years Sanchez not only became a SEPA Mujer member and attended monthly meetings, but also found a home, she said. She became the president of the “Mujeres sin Fronteras” or Women Without Borders group at the SEPA Mujer Hampton Bays chapter. She also started volunteering in their different programs and assisting women in difficult situations.

Last year she was recognized by the organization as the Member of the Year.

“God gave me another opportunity, I’m sure of it. My mission now is to help others, the same way Martha [Maffei] and SEPA helped me,” she said.

She attended SEPA Mujer’s Leadership Academy in Riverside last Fall, where, she says she discovered a “new-self.”

“I found out for the first time who I wanted to be and what I liked when I took that leadership course,” she said.

She enrolled in GED classes and she says she wants to become a social worker.

She has also been offered a part-time job working as a coordinator for Rural & Migrant Ministry, a nonprofit group that works closely with the workers in rural communities.

“We’re incredibly proud of Noemi. She is one of the best women I know and it’s all because of her hard work,” Maffei said.

Maffei said that Sanchez’s story although one of success, is not unique, and that many women have the same potential to beat tough odds and feel safe again and become important members in their communities.

However, Maffei said that in order to continue to provide essential programs and services, such as legal immigration assistance program for victims of crime , civic engagement and leadership development trainings, referrals, educational presentations and others, SEPA Mujer needs to raise the necessary funds to keep functioning.

“October is a crucial month for us. We are losing important funding from two big sources and this puts in jeopardy our programs and our mission if we don’t raise enough money,” said Maffei.

SEPA Mujer will soon lose one of its main sponsors, the Hagerdorn Foundation, which will close its doors Oct. 13.

The foundation has provided funds for general organizational support and administrative expenses such as rent, something that Maffei said is very hard to fund because sometimes foundations will only provide money for specific programs.

SEPA has also received federal funds from a grant from the Department of Justice through the Violence Against Women Act that expires on Oct. 5. The grant has helped the organization fund their legal aid services and staff attorney’s wages for the last three years.

“Our attorney’s work is tremendously important. She helps women that are victims of domestic violence, sexual abuse, human traffic and others,” Maffei said.

Maffei said they had applied again for the federal grant but they didn’t know if they would receive it again or not. She also said that they were looking to apply for other grants, but that she had found that in her experience it was harder for Eastern Long Island non profits to get funds for domestic violence from large private organizations and foundations because those tend to go to groups based in or close to New York City.

“The needs of the women out here are unique, as are the service we provide,” she said.

SEPA Mujer has estimated that for them to successfully continue offering their programs and services they need to raise at least $150,000 a year to cover their legal aid services and organizational expenses.

“It is crucially important that we raise these funds. Local women are depending on us,” Maffei said.

Through the gala, Maffei said they were expecting to fundraise about $30,000. Tickets to the event are $125 and full tables are $1,000. So far Maffei said that were expecting to sell about 200 tickets.

Attendees will also be able to donate at the gala or participate in a raffle that will take place that day. Additionally, Maffei said that donations can always be made online.

Other gala honorees include Sandra Gil, Recipient of the Legacy Achievement Award 2017, who passed away on September 1 due to cancer. Gil, a well-known community leader throughout the East End, worked at the Suffolk County Health Department in the Division of Patient Care and was a coordinator at the Parent Leadership Initiative. She dedicated most of her life to empowering and helping immigrant communities in Suffolk County.

Maria Avila, Recipient of the 2017 Rising Star and Marcia Estrada, Member of the Year, will also be recognized.


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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