‘I help new immigrants because it is the right thing to do’; Yolanda makes rural communities welcoming

Small Towns

Note: With a heavy heart, we write Yolanda Peck passed away on April 24, 2021. Yolanda was a tireless advocate for her people in Nebraska City and beyond, and she considered everyone she crossed paths with to be “her people.”

Yolanda wore many hats, but each one of them came with the priority of helping those who needed it. When Yolanda talked of helping people, it was never in a one time way, it was what can be done to get them on their feet, to get them in a position where they could then help their neighbor. There was never a task too big or too small for her to devote her time to.

If there was an unmet need, she would do all she could do to meet it. Whether that be personally delivering food from the food bank when distribution was cancelled due to COVID, helping individuals navigate the legal system, or even rescuing puppies that needed a home, Yolanda was there.

Anyone who knew Yolanda, knew there was strength in the relationship, not just with her, but with the network of people she created bridges between. Mayors, chiefs of police, professors, advocates, agricultural workers, truck drivers, bar owners, the list goes on; if there was only one thing they had in common, it was they knew their community was stronger because of Yolanda. We will miss her and her leadership.

-Jordan Feyerherm, Community Development Manager, Sandra Renner, Farm and Community Director

Para la versión en español de esta historia, por favor oprima aqui.

Rural America is a place of great diversity, where the love of small communities and the chance for huge opportunities meet.
Immigrants traveled here by boat and buggy from countries all over the world chasing opportunity—having pride in what they built with their own two hands—and have passed their legacy down from generation to generation.
Today, immigrants still come to rural America—to put down roots, find a better life, a better education for their children, and a safer place to call home. Hailing from all across the globe, they travel to the United States, land of opportunity.
As lifelong residents of rural America and descendants of the immigrants who settled here, our job is to welcome and embrace the diverse new populations calling our small towns home, and to respect and learn from their culture, as we remember that these individuals come to rural places for so many of the same reasons our ancestors did.
Yolanda Peck, an immigrant herself, has spent her life and career learning and growing in this country, and now lends her knowledge to those just starting their life here, in hopes of making their new home a welcoming one.
From her experiences working on big rigs and driving heavy truck loads across the country, to obtaining her master’s degree in the biology field, Yolanda now lives in Nebraska City, Nebraska, where she works tirelessly to guide and assist the new immigrant community.
“I help new immigrants because it is the right thing to do,” Yolanda said. “I know they suffer from bias and discrimination, which I have suffered myself. Discrimination is not nice or pretty, and it could make you lose confidence in yourself. When this happens, being accepted by the community is far from your mind.”
Yolanda has spent countless hours on building inclusion and welcoming in Nebraska City, and has teamed up with the Center for Rural Affairs for the last three years to execute these practices in a variety of ways.
Those projects include giving Spanish language lessons to immigrants from Central America who speak a variety of indigenous languages to help them connect with other immigrants, as well as giving English language lessons to immigrants who want to improve their language skills to better navigate their new community.
Yolanda helps immigrants acclimate to their new home by showing them how to do tasks like go to the bank or doctor; set up electricity for their homes; and other things needed for daily living. She also assists with food insecurity programs that are available during the holidays or winter months; shows new immigrants how the legal system works and how to interact with law enforcement; and has established relationships with community leaders and large employers to be a bridge within the community.
“Everything I do is directed toward immigrants being included in the community,” she said. “I want people to accept that immigrants, regardless of color, are people who can contribute and be good citizens.”
Yolanda has also shared her scientific knowledge about COVID-19 with the immigrant community by visiting with those in the area who were still gathering together, providing up-to-date COVID-19 response, distributing masks and hand sanitizer, and helping the public health department with some translation work.
She believes inclusivity in the community is a key component to success for everyone.
“To eliminate bias, I try to have immigrants be involved,” she said. “For example, I received a holiday toy donation, and had immigrant volunteers who wrapped and delivered the toys—to all children, without discrimination. Everybody in the area knows me, so it would not have impacted the American population if I had delivered them. But, they will remember that immigrants brought their children toys.”
According to Yolanda, working on any project concerning immigrants must be looked at differently, even the simple ones—each one can be difficult at times, but also worth it.
“Every case is like taking a test—your mind must go through the pieces of information to analyze the situation and proceed the correct way,” she said. “Sometimes, it can require research. Other times, it can be frustrating because the immigrants must learn new rules and they can be resistant to change, but it’s rewarding when we have good results.”
Yolanda takes on this work with pride and enthusiasm because she knows firsthand what immigrants go through to make a life in this country. The responsibility lies on all of us to be welcoming and inclusive to everyone who calls rural America home, as our families were all once immigrants looking for that same kindness in this country.
“One of the best ways I can think of to reach out is to ask others to help the new immigrants adjust,” she said. “Did we not do that in school? I remember knowing a subject well and the teacher asking me to help a classmate—it’s the same idea. It works.”
What Yolanda does to assist the immigrant community is done out of respect and love for people she wants to see succeed in their new lives. She uses her experiences and knowledge to make that happen.
“I have helped the immigrant population for 21 years, and I only worry about the job at hand,” she said. “I am a big believer in self-sufficiency, and I want to teach the immigrants—they are attentive and want to learn. What matters to me is that I am considered honest and I know the population I work with thinks so too. Everything I have learned has helped my people. I am their mentor, and I am their coach. I know my people can.”

Feature photo: Yolanda Peck in her office. | Photo by Emilee Pease