In every community, there are people who go above and beyond their civic duty to make their home a better place for everyone. These are the people that are absolutely vital to our work, but more importantly, vital to rural America. In Hastings, that person is Aida Olivas.
No matter who you ask, they will tell you she is a force, someone who gets things done and doesn’t wait around. No matter how hot the summer, or cold the winter, you can find Aida trekking along back highways and visiting small towns to make sure the migrant and recently arrived immigrant communities have everything they need and know where to go if they need help getting settled in. She never stops working, and loves every second of it. Part of the reason Aida has such a passion for serving her community is because 20 years ago when she moved to the U.S. from Mexico, she was the one who needed a helping hand.
When Aida first arrived in Hastings with her young son and daughter, neither of them had English language skills, and the prospect of making a home in Hastings seemed daunting. At the time, the schools had no language programs, it was difficult to shop for basic supplies, and information on how to navigate Hastings as a new resident was difficult to come by.
However, all that changed when Aida found out about the Head Start Program. She began volunteering every day, took ESL classes in the morning, GED classes in the afternoon, and still somehow found time to work and raise her family. She won’t tell you it was easy, because it wasn’t, but she will tell you that as soon as she found the Head Start program and the workers there, she finally felt welcome. She was given an opportunity and ran with it.
Through all of her hours volunteering, she began to make strong community ties with individuals across every sector of town: city council members, chamber of commerce members, city officials, business owners, and the list goes on. Eventually this led her to being offered a job at Head Start with the migrant staff, where she has worked for the past 11 years.
It is clear to see that Aida is someone who intimately knows Hastings and is one of the community’s biggest advocates. In the past 20 years, she has seen the town grow and become more accessible for all. The public schools now have language programs, and programs like Head Start have grown and gained wider awareness.
Overall, she says the “town is doing great and is a welcoming and safe place to live.” But, like any other city, Hastings still has its challenges.
Like many rural Nebraska towns, Hastings struggles with transportation, employment, language services and affordable housing. These problems tend to compound each other: “many resources (like jobs and legal services) are not available in Hastings, and make people drive long distances to access them,” said Aida.
Aida works tirelessly to help people overcome these challenges. When asked “what is one thing you wish everyone knew about the people you serve?” she replied, “We are hard workers, we are here to have a better life. Sometimes we cannot ask for assistance. A person who is not a citizen cannot take public assistance or steal the jobs of Americans.” She sees the growth of Hastings and the capacity building of its residents as the same goal: a stronger Hastings together.
When asked, “Why do you do this job, and what motivates you to continue?” she gave a big smile and told me “I can go to sleep happy. My passion is to help people. This job isn’t 9 to 5, it’s whenever and wherever the people who need help are. Everything in life takes a team. We help someone now, they help others later, that’s what this country is all about. Giving people a chance to be a part of the community and contribute is exactly why I am where I am today.”
However, this job is emotionally taxing as well as rewarding. She says nothing is harder than ”seeing and hearing the trauma others have to go through to pursue a better life, and being limited in what you can do to help.”
It is because of this great well of empathy she is able and driven to do this work. Because of people like Aida, rural communities are still vibrant and beautiful places. Because of people like Aida, small towns can still be strong communities. Because of people like Aida, the American dream is still alive.
Pictured above: Community leaders are vital to towns such as Sidney, Neb. Because of people like Aida Olivas, small towns can still be strong communities. | Photo by Rhea Landholm
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