CLEARWATER — Lawyer Virginia Obando worked as an adviser to congress in her home country of Bolivia before leaving nearly a decade ago when another political crisis enveloped the socialist-led South American country.
Obando kept a hand in the law after she moved to Florida, working with immigration law firms and obtaining a master’s degree in international law in 2020 from Stetson University College of Law in St. Petersburg. But for five years, she has taken a more direct route to help lift people up — now as a program director with the Hispanic Outreach Center in Clearwater.
Among Obando’s goals is finding ways to make ends meet for women who immigrated to the United States, many of them single mothers, wives and victims of domestic abuse. She helps them supplement their income through a program she devised three years to make and sell jewelry.
“Each case is different, but they are united by the desire to learn and to be useful in life,” said Obando, 50, known as Vicky to her friends. “Our women need to take a step forward and we are here to help them.”
Obando has helped the outreach center start two new initiatives: a computer program for beginners and parents and a free tax preparation. Computer lessons start March 29 with a group of 12 students and help with taxes is available Fridays from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m., and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
“We want to give them all the support and opportunities that we can,” Obando said. “Why? because we are talking about a community with many needs.”
Twelve women attend the jewelry-making classes, from Colombia, Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, and Mexico. Their teacher is a Panamanian volunteer, Eneida LaTorre, 47.
“The good part is that each one of these women puts in the best of her heart and talent,” LaTorre said. “It’s comforting to see them move forward and learn something new.”
She credits Obando with promoting a variety of initiatives that bring together Hispanic families and the Hispanic community.
“Vicky has been a great helper, so I can continue the jewelry classes,” LaTorre said. “She gets us sponsors to fund this class and provides us with breakfast every Wednesday. She has been and is an inspiration for each one.”
One of the women now making jewelry is Rocío Jiménez, a 45-year-old mother of three from Mexico, who works eight to 10 hours a day at a fast-food restaurant. Jiménez, looking for something more challenging in the post-pandemic world, joined the jewelry-making group and has learned about tools, materials and design.
Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines
Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
“Who wouldn’t want to earn a little more money for us and our families?” Jiménez said. “All of us, because we want to improve our lives.”
Jiménez contracted COVID-19 nine months ago and was very sick for two weeks. She feels comfortable with her new group, meeting new friends and knowing it can help open new doors for her. One of her main priorities is her youngest daughter, Alondra, 16, mother of a 10-month-old girl.
“It has been a difficult year for everyone,” Jiménez said. “We need to awake again.”
Another member of the group is Maritza De los Santos, a 61-year-old immigrant from the Dominican Republic immigrant who has three grown children. De los Santos started working in a restaurant when she moved Clearwater five years ago but now she cleans homes, five days a week.
Making jewelry promises to help supplement her income and make new friends, she said: “You work, laugh, and talk. It’s nice and feels like a real family.”
Gloria Reyes, 56, came from Puerto Rico to Florida after Hurricane Maria damaged her home in 2017. Reyes learned about Obando’s programs through teacher LaTorre, whom Reyes met at a local church.
“Since I started my jewelry classes, I feel happier,” Reyes said. “It serves as therapy and an escape for us who often do not have as many friends as we would like.”
Group member Debora De Beer, a medical doctor from Venezuela, hopes to see the programs expanded to more locations.
Five years ago, she and her husband came to Tampa to escape the economic and humanitarian decay in their homeland. They have a 4-year-old daughter but they’ve started divorce proceedings.
At a time like this, De Beer said, for all the women taking part, the jewelry class and counselor Vicky are “the best.”
“We are united by the desire to improve and overcome our problems,” De Beer said. “It’s not easy but it’s a good start.”
In Bolivia, Obando worked with the House of Representatives from 2002 through 2006, managing projects and providing legal advice and assistance to members.
After she moved to Florida, Obando worked as bilingual legal aid at two immigration law firms, helped victims of domestic abuse and led initiatives to get more Hispanic women involved in their communities. She’s a member at large on the board of the Literacy Council of Upper Pinellas, a nonprofit volunteer organization that teaches literacy and social skills to people 16 and older.
Married and the mother of a 15-year-old son, Obando credits her own parents with instilling in her a drive to serve the community. Her father, Walter Obando, 81, worked every day, including weekends, at his automotive business or helping his Bolivian community in some way. Her mother, Fanny Sánchez, 81, is a cancer survivor, dedicated to her family and four kids. They now live in Florida.
“They gave us everything,” Obando said. “They set an example by working.”