The group of 15 immigrant women still were having trouble learning English, despite the efforts of Maria Sanchez de Morales. Knowing the love these ladies had for soap operas, she started telling them about “Days of our Lives.”
After hearing just a basic outline of the show, the women became enthralled. Watching “Days of our Lives” helped them become more fluent in English, and it helped them to develop the confidence and skills to get their citizenship paperwork done.
A social worker with the Columbia/Boone County Health Department, Morales has been assigned to the Columbia nonprofit Centro Latino. Co-workers say she has been integral to the effort to connect Latinos with the health, education and cultural resources they need.
Now, however, she plans to return to Laredo, Texas, where she was born and raised, in the hopes of starting a notary public business.
“I want to do this so I can help immigrants get their paperwork done for Bush’s new immigrant employment plan,” Morales said. “I want to help as many people as possible.”
Eduardo Crespi, director of Centro Latino, said Morales will be missed.
“She helped create a rapport with the Latino community,” Crespi said. “She helped make people feel more comfortable coming to the Centro Latino.”
Morales’ struggles when she first came to Columbia motivated her to help immigrant Latinos. Being unemployed, she had to learn the ins and outs of the system.
“When I first came here, I had to go to all the local help agencies,” Morales said. “Because I had to go through it, and I knew how easy it was, I thought that I could help people.”
Around the health department she is known for her contagious enthusiasm and willingness to help.
“She’s always ready to get to work and to help,” social worker Roxana Huaman said. “She always has a big smile, and she’s always positive.”
Her positive attitude stems from being able to help those in trouble or in need. One of Morales’ most positive experiences was when she helped someone with her car insurance.
“This lady was in a car accident, and she thought the insurance company was trying to trick her with a $4,000 claim check,” Morales said. “When I went down to the insurance company, they were willing to pay, and it turns out that she didn’t know what a claim check was.”
Mary Martin, public health manager of the health department, recalled a time when Morales went beyond just being a resource.
“One day she went to the hospital with this woman who was having a baby to be her translator,” Martin said. “She ended up spending the whole night with her, and the next morning she still came into the office.”
One of Morales’ goals is to help empower people, which is exactly what she did when a pregnant woman came to her for help.
“I took this girl to Planned Parenthood and had her make her own appointment since she had been taking ESL (English as a Second Language),” Morales said. “I was ready to help her, but in the end she tried hard, did well and made her own appointment.”
After all of her achievements, Morales will be sorely missed, health department social services supervisor Steve Hollis said.
“She’s a person of the people and exactly what we needed for the program,” Hollis said. “She built lots of trust and created a good rapport with the community.”