Leadership series notes Latino contributions

ROCHESTER — Yolanda Benítez has always felt a need to give back to her community, especially when it comes to helping young people.

So, when she became executive director for Hillside Work-Scholarship Connection’s Jobs Institute after her many years of working up the ladder at Wegmans, she combined her passion for service with her professional career goals.

Benítez kicked off the leadership series for the United Way of Rochester’s Círculo Latino during her presentation Feb. 21 at the Hillside program’s office on Mustard Street.

She began her presentation about her leadership journey with a quote from President Frank Delano Roosevelt that illustrates one of her mottos: "We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future."

"That speaks of what I hope to be my legacy," she said. "I look to be a servant leader."

As part of that goal, she serves on the board for Borinquen Dance Theatre and the American Red Cross’ Next Generation Leadership Program that mentors young Latinos and African-Americans.

Benítez also is a board member for Círculo Latino, which was founded in 2006 as a leadership giving society through the United Way of Greater Rochester, explained Tabita Torres Rodríguez, a senior relationship manager and coordinator for the Latino Leadership Development Program.

"Latino philanthropists are a powerful force for change in our community and a testament to a proud legacy of generous giving," she said.

Credit for the leadership series goes to the Círculo Latino Steering Committee, said Fernan R. Cepero, chief human resources officer at the YMCA of Greater Rochester.

"Their objective was twofold: provide a unique way to recognize Latino leaders in the community in a forum that would educate and inspire other Latinos," he said. "My hope is that the series continues to highlight the leadership contributions of Latinos in the Rochester community."

The leadership sessions will be held quarterly, and the next speaker lined up is the Rev. Luis Pérez, who is director of the Horizons summer program at the Harley School, Torres said. Following Benítez’s presentation, Rev. Perez said that the two grew up as neighbors and he is proud of where her journey took her.

"To see all that (she’s) accomplished … it’s really exciting," he said.

Family, friends and faith were intertwined during her years growing across the street from Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church on Woodward Street after Benítez moved to Rochester from Puerto Rico as a young child.

Her family also played a huge role in forming who she is and taught her integrity, humility, modesty, and the importance of maintaining the Spanish language and culture, Benítez explained.

"These are values that today I still hold very dear," she said.

She also has been shaped by traveling around the world with her husband, David.

"It is the best education in developing an appreciation of others’ culture, norms … and history," Benítez remarked.

It was her husband who encouraged her to attend college, and she eventually earned a bachelor’s degree from Nazareth College in 1984. Following a job at the former Sibley’s department store, Benítez was hired to work in Wegmans’ human resources department in 1990.

She went on to run the Irondequoit store when it was first built and thanks the mentors who helped guide her in this new arena, Benítez said. At the time, there were only two other female store managers and her mentors were determined she not fail, she said.

"They took me under their wing and mentored me in different ways," on the internal political climate, how to make a store profitable and branding, Benítez said.

After seven years in the position, she took another managerial job in the perishable foods department and traveled to Italy. She later switched to overseeing the employment training and leadership department, Benítez added.

"I had to learn quickly," she said. "I live to learn and am always looking for a new opportunity and challenge."

She then went on to manage a skin care line for four years until she was asked to develop the Hillside concept that had been developed in 1987, Benítez explained.

Since that time, the Hillside program has grown to serve more than 3,000 students, she noted. In addition to having part-time jobs at Wegmans, the youths work with advocates who help them stay in school and go on to college or careers with companies that are program partners, Benítez said.

And she is thrilled to be in a position that combines her passion of working with youths and helping the community, Benítez added.

"We’re making a difference in the world one student at a time," she said.

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