Three extraordinary women were recognized by the Soroptimist International of Gresham during its awards and sponsor-gratitude luncheon Thursday afternoon, March 2, at the Gresham Elks Lodge on Southeast Division Street.
The Soroptimist "Live Your Dream" awards were given to three women who provide the primary source of financial support for their families. The winners are given the resources they need to improve their education, skills and employment prospects.
"I want to thank everyone for coming today," said June Jacobs, president of the Soroptimists. "I'm the worst person to have up here because I get so moved by their stories."
All the winners overcame obstacles of abuse, addiction, single parenthood, homelessness and moves away from family. All the applicants are enrolled in, or accepted to, a vocation- or skills-training program or undergraduate degree program. They also demonstrated a financial need.
Maria "Cristina" Diaz took first place and $3,500, Masika J. Kanyere received second and $2,500, while Norma L. Salinas claimed third and $1,500. The money doesn't have to be spent on books or school tuition, but can instead go where it's most needed. Be it child care or the electric power bill, the award helps keep people in school by addressing everyone's most pressing needs.
It was an emotional afternoon for the 50 people who attended, many of whom were the sponsors who helped make the awards possible. Each of the winner's families and friends were in attendance, as were important sponsors, local leaders and Soroptimist members. Attendees enjoyed a catered meal and speeches from the three honored women. They all expressed thanks for the opportunities the awards will provide.
Maria "Cristina" Diaz
At 14 years old, Diaz decided being homeless was a better decision than continuing to live at either of her parent's homes. A few years later the first of her four children were born. Knowing that couch surfing and occasionally sleeping on the streets was not a life for her family, she began looking for a job.
Diaz struggled to find a paying position because of her age, lack of education and experience, so she decided to volunteer with a nonprofit organization. A month later, based on her hard work, the director offered Diaz a paying position.
Now 13 years and several promotions later, Diaz is ready to further her education. She is pursuing an associate's degree in Social Service Science so she can better provide for her family and help guide those still in need.
"I'm really nervous. I'm not used to all of this attention," Diaz said to the group. "My four beautiful children give me all the strength."
Masika J. Kanyere
Kanyere is a refugee from Uganda, where she escaped war and insecurity. A single mother of two, she decided coming to the United States would offer a better educational opportunity for herself and her children.
"I am a single parent with two kids, and I was struggling with the new language," she said.
Kanyere persevered, and through diligent work is now enrolled in the certified nursing program at Mt. Hood Community College, and her goal is to eventually become a dental hygienist. She hopes to serve as an example to her children to show them what opportunities are available to those who put in the effort.
Norma L. Salinas
Coming from Mexico, Salinas began school in the U.S. only knowing Spanish. In fact, many years went by without her knowing what was happening while attending school. This led to fear and anxiety, and constant bullying because she couldn't communicate with her peers.
She dropped out and looked forward to raising a family of her own. Attending events and organizations with her children, she discovered a renewed desire to refocus on her education and personal growth. Salinas also was trying to leave a life of domestic violence, and she knew additional money was needed for her education.
Salinas' career goal is to become a bilingual teacher to help other children avoid the pitfalls of her own experience.
"I would like to thank my brother for pushing me to follow this opportunity," Salinas said. "I am going to make this life possible."