Flanders resident and FRNCA board member Paola Zúñiga-, who was honored as Member of the Year by SEPA Mujer at a gala awards dinner last week. Courtesy photo: SEPA Mujer

Flanders resident Paola Zúñiga-Tellez was honored by SEPA Mujer as the organization’s Member of the Year at its 25th Anniversary Gala Friday night in East Patchogue.

Zúñiga-Tellez has been a member of the nonprofit organization, which looks to empower Latina women through a wide array of programs, for the past three years.

“It is an honor to be recognized,” Zúñiga-Tellez said. “I thank SEPA for supporting me and helping me grow…this is a hard moment for Latinos everywhere and it is important to stand strong and keep fostering love and understanding.”

SEPA Mujer executive director Martha Maffei said that Paola is an exceptionally active member within their organization. Zúñiga-Tellez, the first-ever Latina board member of the Flanders, Riverside and Northampton Community Association, has participated in multiple initiatives that have helped promote civic engagement and advance local Latina women and their families, as well as being instrumental in the strengthening of SEPA’s Riverside-Flanders chapter by helping with the monthly meetings that are held at the Riverside Rediscovered Peconic Avenue offices, Maffei said. (Riverside Rediscovered won the Partnership of the Year award in 2017.)

“Through her participation with SEPA Mujer, she has had the opportunity to help other women and be an exemplary role model for many others in her local town,” Maffei said. “Her commitment to our organization has impacted countless women, men, and children in the East End of Long Island.”

Zúñiga-Tellez was also presented with a proclamation from Suffolk County Legislator Rob Calarco (D-Patchogue) recognizing her for the honor.

About 200 people attended the gala and awards event celebrated at Sunset Harbour in East Patchogue. This year’s theme was “The Journey of the Amazing SEPAs,” honoring all of its 250-plus members as “heroes that do not wear capes…but have a fire within to change the world they live in,” Maffei said.

“The ‘Amazing SEPAs’ advocate for justice in local town halls, bring diversity to local school Parent Teacher Association meetings, fight to end gender violence and push intersectionality in feminist issues to reflect and include our issues too,” Maffei said.

Zúñiga-Tellez, a 32-year-old native of Mexico, first came to the United States when she was 13. After living for many years in New York City, she moved to the East End in 2005. When she arrived, she was surprised to find a Latino community that was underrepresented and lacked the access to many of the programs and activities that Latinos in New York City enjoyed, she said.

She joined Centro Corazon de Maria of the Religious Sacred Heart of Mary in 2011, a local nonprofit agency in Hampton Bays that supports immigrants, where she connected with SEPA Mujer.

But it wasn’t until 2012, when she went through a difficult situation with her young children’s school that she learned the hard way how important it was for her to know her and her family’s rights and how to fight for them.

“I learned then that if I wanted to help my family and my community I had to not only inform myself, but also get involved,” she said.

When SEPA opened up a chapter in the Riverhead-Flanders-Riverside area, Zuniga-Tellez was one of the first ones to sign up. There, she completed a leadership academy course of several weeks about civic engagement. Shortly after that, inspired by what she had learned about the importance of becoming involved at the local level, she joined FRNCA, where she has thrived, bringing diversity and a unique point of view to the community association.

“I have a lot of hope, there is a lot of work to do, but I think that the solution is to do it together as a community,” she said.

RiverheadLOCAL en Español honored as ‘Rising Star’

RiverheadLOCAL owners Peter Blasl and Denise Civiletti, editor Maria Piedrabuena and Entre Amigos host Andrea Navarro Jiménez. Courtesy photo: SEPA Mujer

RiverheadLOCAL en Español, launched in 2017, was the recipient of the Rising Star of the Year Award at the gala, for the “tremendous and outstanding grassroots commitment to empower people of color and immigrants on a local level, and for their contribution in making Long Island a more welcoming place for immigrants.”

“We are honored by this recognition and thank SEPA Mujer for acknowledging our work,” RiverheadLOCAL co-publisher Denise Civiletti said. “We set out to foster mutual understanding and build bridges in our diverse community by bringing local news to Spanish-speaking residents and news about our Latino neighbors to the non-Spanish-speaking community,” she said. “Through the efforts of editor Maria Piedrabuena and the rest of our team, we have begun to accomplish this.”

Other honorees included a posthumous award for Legacy of the Year for Jenny Cruz, a SEPA Mujer board member who passionately fought for women’s and civil rights and who passed away this year; an Organization of the Year award for Empowerment Collaborative of Long Island, a human service agency dedicated to reducing the incidence and impact of abuse on Long Island by providing prevention education to their community and comprehensive supportive services to survivors, and a Partnership of the Year Award for Restaurant Opportunities Center United NY for their work in improving wages and working conditions for the nation’s restaurant workforce.

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