Step by Step, From the Vulnerable to Change Makers

Lorena Venegas has just turned 50. She feels grateful when she reflects on her journey that began in Chile with her family. She was born in the U.S. but went back to Chile because her parents’ visas expired, and they were deported. After several years of struggling with immigration papers, Lorena and her family were able to return.

NHS of New Haven Resident Leadership Program facilitator Lorena Venegas

They moved into the first public housing project built in East Haven before Lorena entered high school. Lorena and her parents understood the importance of education. “I lived across the street from the public library, Hagaman Memorial Library in East Haven. It led me to dream. I got to look at the maps, run through newspapers, magazines, and microfiche. It just helped me heal from a lot of things,” Lorena said.

She attended Cornell University, where she experienced even more resources than the library afforded her. However, bad news was waiting at home. When Lorena visited, she found out that her parents were filed for bankruptcy, and they had to leave their house in Hamden in 10 days. Because of language barriers, they were not able to understand that they signed a negative amortization mortgage loan. They would never be able to pay the first mortgage.

Despite the challenges, Lorena never thought of giving up. Instead, she decided it was time to look after her family. “Sometimes, you need to become a parent of your own mom,” Lorena said, “the roles are flipped when there’s trauma and tragedy in a family.”

“I decided to work,” she added. Lorena held multiple jobs at once, learned about CD investments, how to get a credit score up, opened an IRA account for herself. Eventually, she was able to purchase a home with an affordable mortgage. Her parents still live there.

Lorena changed the situation for her family, and she knew that there were more things she could accomplish. “From there, I always advocate for the most vulnerable. It doesn’t matter if it’s a bird, a tree, or an asthmatic child,” Lorena said. She started advocating for more positive changes in the community.

This year, Lorena joins the Resident Leadership Program team at Neighborhood Housing Services of New Haven (NHS) as an instructor for the session called Power in The Neighborhood: Using Community Organizing to Create Change. The session aims to help participants understand the four core elements of community organizing. Lorena will also share the five steps to build an effective campaign and provide concrete examples of community organizers who made a difference.

Lorena believes that nonpartisan organizations can create better changes. She also suggests that figuring out who to work with and how to work together as a team is crucial. “You don’t have to be the leader of everything and you don’t have to know all the organizing bits, but you have to evaluate the different strengths in your group,” Lorena said.

“I’m always recreating myself. I’m always a work in progress, always learning. I’ve had corporate jobs, I’ve had non-profit jobs, and worked in school systems,” said Lorena. “Who knows what’s next. I’m open to it.”

About Resident Leadership Program: The primary goals of this program are to transfer concrete leadership skills to New Haven residents, create a space for participants to share their experiences with one another and increase their sense of being agents of change. NHS of New Haven will provide all training materials. You must attend at least four workshops to earn a NeighborWorks certificate. Learn more about our program here

You may also like…