STAMFORD, CT -- In a city and a state of pronounced income disparities, Latino business owners Maria Isabel and Oscar Sandoval are among a group of Hispanics lending a hand to immigrant families working to get ahead, just like they did many years before.
“It wasn’t easy,” said Sandoval. “I started at the bottom and worked my way up. I mentor others who are starting out, and let them know about my experience and help as many people as I can.”
Though they struggled when they first moved to Stamford over twenty years ago, the Sandovals are now the proud owners of a restaurant and a landscaping business, and they employ more than 60 people. Now they are paying it forward by guiding and assisting residents like Alex Pipantasi, an immigrant from Ecuador.
"He gave me valuable advice on how to treat clients and employees,” said Pipantasi about Sandoval, whom he worked for when he arrived in Stamford in 2005. He said without Sandoval's support he would not have been able to open his own car repair shop.
“He was my first client. With his advice I was able to get ahead and become more stable, and be able to provide a better future for my family as well,” Pipantasi said.
Connecticut is home to a burgeoning Hispanic population. A 2012 Migration Policy Institute study found that more than 500,00 Latinos now reside in the Constitution state, around 14 percent of the more than 3.5 million residents. Connecticut was recently ranked as the third richest state in the U.S., and the state with the highest percentage of households earning above $200,000. Many Latinos in executive and financial industry positions make their home in the state, where proximity to Wall Street is a plus.
“When you live in a community like Stamford, where almost 40 percent of the population is foreign born - in an area where there is so much affluence and at the same time so many people work in service jobs - it’s an issue that directly affects the entire population of Fairfield County,” said Catalina Samper Horak, one of the founders of Neighbors Link, a non-profit community center in Stamford to address the needs of immigrants in the area. Samper Horak, who is from Colombia, serves as the center’s Executive Director.
Since it opened in 2010, Neighbors Link has served over 3,200 people, and more than 100 clients come on a regular basis to take classes and learn new computer skills, job skills and perfect their English, all free of charge. In addition, they connect families with schools, as well as provide access to health care and emergency assistance.
Samper Horak explained that in places like Stamford, it's hard to avoid the stark differences in income and the way families live their lives.
"It's an issue where there is a very direct connection between the haves and the have not’s. So supporting this segment of the population, making sure they have a place where they feel comfortable….was an idea that resonated with a lot of people.”
For Apolinar Sanchez, an immigrant from Mexico who works both in construction and in a restaurant to support his family, the center has been a much-needed lifeline.
“They taught me to speak English, and gave my children backpacks and school supplies,” said Sanchez, adding that he also benefited from Neighbors Link's valuable job-hiring site, which connected him with employers and allowed him to secure various job opportunities.
The center does not receive any government funding; it's the support of local philanthropists such as Sarita Hanley that allowed them to start the center and keep their doors continuously open.
“Everywhere we go in Fairfield County we see a Latino who is working hard to provide for their families…How can you not help them? ” said Hanley, a Puerto Rican-born resident who firmly believes in the philosophy of giving back and was one of the center’s founding members.
She also stressed that immigrant and working families need more than funds, but also guidance.
“Money is always necessary, but rolling up your sleeves is as important, sometimes even more,” Hanley added, stressing that the program relies on volunteers.
Stamford residents like the Sandovals, who have made a point of helping immigrant families, agree. “United we have more strength," said Maria Isabel, who volunteers at the center. This sentiment was echoed by her husband.
“We need to help each other out, and not just in Stamford, but in the rest of the country as well”, says the Latino businessman.
Latino philanthropic efforts are growing around the country, according to Diana Campoamor, executive director of Hispanics in Philanthropy.
“We look at it as an investment,” said Campoamor in a phone interview with NBC, adding philanthropy is key to strengthening communities. Based in California, the organization is dedicated to “helping foundations expand the amount and effectiveness of their giving to Latino non-profits.” Neighbors Link is one of the centers which has benefited from their grants over the last couple of years. As Campoamor sees it, the center is providing a service that is making a difference.
In Stamford, Samper Horak said re-investing in their own community is a key component to helping local Latinos get ahead. What she sees on a daily basis at the center is a microcosm of what is being replicated around the country.
“What we hear about and read in the newspapers it all happens here. When we talk about the issue of unaccompanied minors…when we talk about the achievement gap….It’s the reality that we see here," said Samper Horak. "It’s a local piece that reflects the national piece.”