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That immigrant story

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The Philadelphia Inquirer

March 25, 2009 Wednesday

CITY-D Edition

La Comunidad Hispana focuses on "that immigrant story"

BYLINE: By Art Carey; Inquirer Staff Writer

SECTION: PHILADELPHIA; P-com News Local; Pg. B01

LENGTH: 1030 words

When Margarita Queralt Mirkil began her new job as executive director of La Comunidad Hispana, she turned her private office into a conference room and moved her desk out onto the open floor with the rest of the staff.

"I didn't want to be cloistered," said Mirkil, who took over in September. "I wanted to be part of what's going on."

Sometimes, when the receptionist is away from her desk, Mirkil will field phone calls from clients herself. She doesn't mind at all.

"It's why we're here," she said.

It also gives her a chance to ask her favorite question: What's your story?

"We all have that immigrant story," Mirkil said.

The stories heard at La Comunidad Hispana ("The Hispanic Community," LCH for short), based in Kennett Square, are often tales of struggle and hardship - Latino workers and their families trying to cope with medical problems, language barriers, and intimidating red tape. Mirkil and her bilingual, largely bicultural staff of 22 try to give those stories a happy ending.

Sonia Zavala, 30, of Kennett Square, came from Mexico and is married to a mushroom worker. She has turned to LCH when she has needed help applying for health insurance for her three children or directions to a strange place.

"Whatever questions I might have, I can call, and they support me," Zavala said through a translator.

George Morrison, 57, of Avondale, is not Hispanic, but his health insurance covered visits to Project Salud, LCH's nurse-managed health center, which is open to anyone.

"They've taken very good care of me," Morrison said.

Pedro Barrios, 42, of Jennersville, asked LCH to intercede when a landlord refused to return a security deposit. After negotiations, the landlord returned part of the money.

LCH came to the rescue again when his 15-year-old daughter recently began having trouble at school, including skipping homework and playing hooky. LCH social worker Aida Garcia provided guidance and mentoring, both to the girl and her family.

LCH was established in 1973 by concerned citizens, clergy, and advocates for farmworkers to help migrant workers who toiled primarily on the mushroom farms for which southern Chester County is famous. In those days, most of the Latino migrants were men and most came from Puerto Rico.

Today, the essential mission remains unchanged - improving the health and well-being of low-income Latinos and other vulnerable residents - but the needs, and the scope of LCH's response, have grown.

Nearly 17,000 Latino adults and children live in Chester County, making up about 3.5 percent of the total population of about 486,000. People of Hispanic descent constitute more than a quarter of the population of Kennett Square and nearly a third of the students in the Kennett Consolidated School District.

Overall, the local Latino population has become less transient and more permanent, Mirkil said. Most of the influx today is from Mexico, though many Latinos still come from Puerto Rico as well as Guatemala and other countries in Central and South America. Significantly, among the Latinos settling in the area are more women and children, as opposed to earlier years when only men made the migration.

They work on mushroom and horse farms, at nurseries, restaurants, and hotels, for landscapers and contractors. They live in rental housing, often several to a room, in relatively affordable places such as Toughkenamon, Avondale, and Coatesville.

Many speak little English and have less than a ninth-grade education.

Four out of five LCH clients lack health insurance, Mirkil said, and a sizable number are undocumented.

LCH helps local Latinos cope in three ways: health care through its nurse-managed health center; education, such as English instruction and computer training; and social services, including employment counseling. LCH also runs a jobs bank that connects seasonal workers and employers interested in hiring them.

The organization's $2 million budget is supported by government funds, foundations, and local philanthropists. Over the years, LCH has survived some precarious patches. But today, it is within striking distance of the $4.5 million goal of its first capital campaign. In May, it will move into a new building on the edge of Kennett Square's commercial district that will combine the health center and all other functions under one roof.

For Mirkil, the immediate tasks are obvious: "Making sure the capital campaign succeeds, and that the building gets built, and we move into it."

Given that these are pivotal times for LCH, and that Mirkil is at the helm, one might justifiably wonder, "So what's your story?"

The daughter of a Spanish father and American mother, Mirkil, 50, was born in Barcelona, Spain. When she was 8, her family moved to the United States and kept on moving - Baltimore, Upstate New York, Massachusetts.

Mirkil attended the University of Pennsylvania, where she majored in international relations. At Columbia University, she studied international business and earned an M.B.A. She spent most of her career as a management consultant, specializing in marketing and communications. The mother of two adolescents, she is single and lives in Devon. Her smile is coy, her laugh ready, her manner self-deprecating.

Mary Louise Bellezza, controller and human-resources manager for To-Jo Mushrooms in Avondale, whose 190 workers have benefited from LCH services, especially health care, lauds Mirkil for her business sense and focus.

An organization such as LCH cannot survive on idealism alone, Bellezza said. "If you don't have the practicality, the agenda doesn't get pushed through, and I think that's what Margarita really brings to the table."

The position at LCH is Mirkil's first with a nonprofit organization. She said she believed her private-sector background would help make LCH more efficient and professional. Eventually, she hopes to formulate a clear vision and strategic plan that will, in her words, "ensure the organization's sustainability."

LCH is too important not to thrive.

"We're an institution," Mirkil said. "We're great for the community. We do good stuff. We're trusted, and that's going to be a constant."

Contact staff writer Art Carey

at 610-696-3249 or

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