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Even as a nine-year-old, Yhidda Ocasio knew the importance of being prepared.

“I didn’t know what to expect when I first came to the United States from Colombia, so I thought I should bring some food,” Ocasio told me, as we talked in a small conference room at the YWCA of Western Massachusetts offices on Clough Street in Springfield. When her mother tried to lift Yhidda’s heavy suitcase, she asked, “What do you have in here?” “I had packed green plantains and potatoes, just in case.” Ocasio is the YW’s Director of Youth, HIV, and Court Support Programs.

Her mother and grandmother have both been great sources of inspiration, instilling in her a sense of values, spirituality, and resilience. “I appreciate the values my Grandma taught me; the value of family, the value of being kind to people, and the value of not being judgmental.” Ocasio says her grandmother took care of her when she was small in Colombia and remains a strong presence in her life. “People often comment on how happy I look all the time. People don’t need to see what I’m going through. That’s between me and God. My grandmother taught me to pray in the morning and the evening – you wake up with a grateful heart and then end each day with a grateful heart too.” 

Ocasio’s mother was a professional tango dancer, traveling for shows all over the world, but then injured her back and couldn’t dance anymore. “Now I know how much she went through to bring me to the United States, sometimes working three jobs. I want to be a role model so that my mother never feels she wasted her time bringing me here.” 

Part of Ocasio’s role at the YW includes training new employees how to work with immigrant and refugee families. “I try to help our staff understand what life is like for people who come from other countries. They have been through so much struggle and so much poverty. I always want to treat people with kindness and respect because when I came to this country, many people were unkind. So many people made me feel isolated. Not knowing English is a huge barrier.” 

Ocasio was fifteen when the terrorist attack happened on 9/11. Her stepfather wanted them to move back to Colombia. Life in the small area of Neiva, Colombia was filled with drug cartels, homes with aluminum roofs, or no roofs at all, long power outages, and lots of poverty. “I am grateful to have been exposed to those things because it’s made me appreciative, but I never wanted to go back there.” She had no choice though and moved back with her mother and brother, leaving high school and her job at McDonald’s. Her stepfather said he would join them.

Her stepfather never came though, and it was difficult for them to make ends meet. Ocasio devised a plan, reaching out to her manager at McDonald’s to lend her money. She convinced her mother to let her move back to the United States and live with a friend. She successfully supported herself, walking to work and taking every shift she could, while juggling schoolwork. Ocasio said she used to leave her uniforms at work to avoid wrinkling them in her backpack. “My Grandma always taught me to iron my clothes, saying I should carry myself as a representative of our family and culture.”

Ocasio says she liked working at McDonald’s because she could eat the leftover food. “It wasn’t the best to eat – French fries and chicken nuggets – but it helped. I never told my Mom those details because I didn’t want her to worry about me.” Instead, she promised her mother she would graduate from high school, go to college, and not get pregnant. She also kept putting money aside so that her mother and brother could come back to the United States too. Her mother was very proud when Yhidda was recognized with the Principal’s Award at her high school graduation.

After high school, she attended Springfield Technical Community College, then Westfield State University, and Northcentral University, earning both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology and social work, with honors. She is also a licensed mental health counselor.

In 2006, she began working part-time in a group home for people with developmental disabilities and realized how much she liked the work. She wanted to do more to advocate on their behalf, so she applied for and became the agency’s human rights officer. She has maintained that role ever since. In 2008, she started at the YWCA as a young parent support counselor, was promoted to the assistant program director of the domestic violence shelter in 2019, and transitioned to her current role directing youth, HIV, and court support programs, in 2020.

In addition to her grandmother and mother, Ocasio says her teachers and principal in high school were also an inspiration. “They were kind to me, always giving me hope, always having a positive thing to say. I want to be that person. I want to be that change for people.” She says she’s found that at the YWCA. “Liz (referring to YWCA CEO Elizabeth Dineen) always says we don’t have a pool like the YMCA, but every day we are helping people who are drowning. That hits home with me because that’s what we do here every day. We strive to be better, to empower people, to give them a sense of hope.”

Ocasio says she never would have imagined the life she has now when she was a little girl walking back and forth to school in a remote village in Colombia. “I try to tell survivors not to allow this obstacle to define who they can be.  Because if I had allowed having to live in other people’s homes or any of my worst moments to define me, I would never have strived for success. This is just a little hiccup in your road. There is a light. And it’s just the hope you need.”

The YWCA of Western Massachusetts is making a difference in the lives of women and children and it begins with employing, training, and empowering the very best staff. Would you like to help us fulfill our mission? Contact YWCA Director of Human Resources, Diana Guzman at 413-732-3121 to discuss current employment opportunities. To discuss how you or your organization can financially support the YWCA, please contact YWCA CEO, Liz Dineen.