Published in The Day

By Johana Vazquez

New London ― A year ago, Gladiz Egas’ husband died and she felt depressed and lonely.

A while later she saw an ad for a sewing class being offered by Mujeres Entre Culturas, or Women Between Cultures Southeastern Connecticut, a free support group for women of all ages of Latin American heritage who have few resources to address their mental health.

Egas became a regular participant in the group’s activities, traveling from her home in Norwich to New London.

“I feel very happy now,” she said in Spanish. “If you’re going through a difficult time, I urge you to join this group. It gave me the therapy I needed.”

Egas was among approximately 70 women who gathered Monday at Church of the City to celebrate the group’s one-year anniversary.

The group got its start last year when Lizbeth Polo-Smith and Esmeralda Amparo Bustamante, two community health workers and local activists, sought to create a safe space for women to find community and build the skills to become leaders in the greater community.

Their employer, Ledge Light Health District, and the Health Improvement Collaborative of Southeastern Connecticut became sponsors of the program.

Polo-Smith said the program has grown in its first year and become a model for other organizations. She said women in the group have become leaders and teachers, sharing with the group their different skills like sewing and fruit-decorating. The group has also collaborated with other organizations such as the New London Community Meal Center and FRESH New London.

Bustamante said she feels proud, comparing the group to a baby she has seen grow. She said she has enjoyed seeing women feel productive and making a change.

“I see them doing so much, regardless if they have immigration documentation or not, or know English or not. ‘We work together, we grow together,’ that’s one of our slogans,” she said.

Polo-Smith and Bustamante could not hold back tears as they watched a video montage of the group volunteering at food pantries, doing CPR and Narcan trainings and visiting the General Assembly in Hartford as guests of state Rep. Anthony Nolan, D-New London.

Those in attendance also heard testimonies from Mio Santiago, an inspirational speaker and survivor of 9/11; Emma Castillo, a Honduran woman who gained asylum in 2019 and was able to bring her children to the United States this past year; and Maria Peña, a retired New London resident who has benefited from the support group.

Jennifer Muggeo, deputy director of Ledge Light, said social connection is important for overall health and that much of it was lost during the COVID-19 pandemic. She said she feels fortunate to have Polo-Smith and Bustamante on their team, and she can’t wait to see what they do next.

“It’s more than a program. It’s a movement,” she said.

Women Between Cultures received a $9,000 grant from the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut in December. Polo-Smith said they were able to use some of that money to take a few of the group’s women to Washington, D.C., to speak about scholarships and vocational training with Chris Soto, a former state representative from New London who now serves as Senior Adviser to the U.S. Secretary of Education.

Polo-Smith said she and Bustamante’s have always envisioned the group’s members as leaders and graduates. She said some women in the group are taking adult education classes to learn English or get their GED and some want to become nurses or community health workers.

“Because we weren’t able to graduate or complete an education in our home countries, it is our dream to graduate and accomplish things here,” she said.

Polo-Smith said she also sees the group opening its doors to all women, not just women with Latin American heritage.