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Los Sueños de Kenia Calderon

Kenia's Story

By Miriam De Dios 

Imagine walking in Kenia Calderon’s shoes.

You’re 11 years old. El Salvador is home. Yet, it’s a place where authorities have lost control of gang-related violence, and the economy is poor. Despite the fact your father is a successful lawyer and your mother is 18 months away from completing her teaching degree, there is no way for them to make a living that will adequately support your family.

You have relatives in Mexico, so you travel there with a tourist Visa. It expires and you’re "stuck" there for 30 days – undocumented – trying to figure out how to cross the border into the United States, the land of opportunity. Your parents find someone willing to get your family of five across the border for $7,000. Your family is grateful for the "bargain" – it’s usually $7,000 per person.

The next thing you know, you’re trekking by foot across the dessert with 40 others seeking the same thing – a safe place to raise a family, jobs and the chance to live up to your potential. You watch your parents physically struggle to make it. They’re the oldest travelers; you’re the youngest. You realize it’s the ‘norm’ to travel to America this way. Everyone around you is going through the motions. You’re unsure why it has to be this way.

Once in America, aunts and uncles welcome you, and you begin, slowly, acclimating to the community. You don’t speak any English and classmates use that, and several other reasons, to isolate you. The obstacles appear insurmountable. The longer you’re in America, the more hurdles you discover, and the more you miss the place you were born. You’re caught between the perception of the ‘American dream’ and the reality you’re living day-to-day.

Why don’t others have these obstacles, you wonder.

Scholarships provide the opportunity to attend one of the best private high schools in Iowa. You anticipate what lies ahead as you watch other students get excited about their tutors, college entrance exams and college campus visits. Then you remember: The same opportunities don’t apply to you because of your immigration status. The topic isn’t discussed by anyone; it’s just the way it is. You repeatedly ponder how America can be the ‘Land of Opportunity’ while that opportunity seems too far out of reach.

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) is your saving grace. You’re granted a work permit the summer before your senior year, and you acquire a driver’s license. Although your educational plan remains static, you look past the fact an executive order prohibits you from obtaining financial aid for college and set your sights on getting a job to pay your way.

With a paycheck comes another round of reality checks – this time with financial institutions. For those living paycheck to paycheck and without guidance about the importance of establishing good credit, it’s a disheartening journey.

Traditional financial institutions aren’t welcoming in a way that leaves you feeling they really care about you, your story, your hopes and dreams. You’re filled with them but they appear insignificant and, at times, unattainable.

Just when you think the ‘American Dream’ is evaporating, you get word of a credit union with a diverse and empathetic staff made up of people who want to reach out, understand and teach you.

Your hard-earned paychecks find a home at that credit union. Because you’re overseeing your parents’ finances, as well as your own, you conduct business there nearly daily. There’s a familiarity with the credit union employees. For the first time since your journey to America began, you feel you matter. Staff who look like and talk like you make the time and effort to get to know you and your story. You also make an exciting discovery. You realize the comfort you feel and the confidence you’re developing is the result of much more than a shared language. It’s deeper than that. You have people outside your family encouraging you to pursue your dreams.

Credit union employees encourage you to participate in the IDA program. Your story takes a new twist. You’re matched by a private donor and the government. You’re able to pay for the first half of your second year at Drake University. The classes required to earn this opportunity teach you about 401Ks and why credit matters – things your parents haven’t yet been taught. You see first-hand that knowledge is power. In addition to a debt-free college education, you have a better grasp on your finances than most American Millennials. The path to the American Dream is being paved. None of it is taken for granted.

Today, you’re ready to give back and talk of serving one day on a credit union board of directors. You want to share your story and perspective about the journey you literally and figuratively traveled.

You have insight for credit unions interested in learning how to serve the growing Latino population. Your words of encouragement include:

•Use the credit union in this story as an example of one that puts humanity first and sees beyond the dollar signs of a growing Hispanic community.

•Know that by opening your arms to this influential community known for making decisions based on word-of-mouth, you’re impacting people today and into the future, each of whom will remember your acceptance. Life-changing service for one person often leads to opportunities to serve entire families, neighborhoods and communities.

•See the great opportunity a Hispanic Millennial membership presents for innovation. With a high demand for digital banking, advanced apps and next generation ATMs, this audience can inspire real change for credit unions.

•Reach out to high schoolers so they understand financial planning for college, after college and the benefit of establishing relationships early.

•Show up in person in places we gather – church and cultural events, for example. You will reach multiple generations.

•Be respectful and gain an understanding of our culture before communicating with us.

The story of Kenia Calderon’s transition from El Salvador to America isn’t the only one. There are millions of others, each with their own special perspective. Now that you’re aware of Kenia’s experience, how will you strive to help others navigate their unique paths to the American dream?



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