INDEPENDENCE — She’s been pivotal in bringing the community together for a fiesta for 35 years.
She connects the community to much-needed resources and helps anyway she can, whether it’s filling out forms with people, translating, or showing them how to eat healthy meals made from limited ingredients.
“She’s been really active in the community for a long time,” said friend and collaborator Lucy Villastrigo. “Everybody knows her. Everybody knows who Elena Pena is. She really likes the community, that’s why she’s really active.”
A Central High School graduate, Pena said her volunteerism started with her parents and the example they set for her growing up.
“They’re the ones who taught me all I know for caring for people,” Pena said. “A lot of people in the community helped me become what I am. A lot of good teachers. A lot of good role models.”
Pena added that her parents were always helping people in the community.
“Basically, that’s how I got involved, because they helped,” she said. “I thought, ‘oh, this is something I like doing.’”
She connected with volunteers in the ’60s, people who were out in the community helping people learn English, training people how to help themselves, Pena said.
“I used to work with food services through OSU Extension Office,” she said.
Pena taught people how to create meals with government-provided flour, sugar, powdered milk, butter and other items.
“People didn’t know how to use them,” she said. “So the folks that connected with the community when I was in high school would get me involved in the stuff, and I liked being around them. They were beautiful people.”
Her social work started at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church and has extended throughout the community.
“She helps with some of the community outreach for the church and gets people the resources they need,” said Erubiel Valladares, the community liaison with the city of Independence. “She does that on her own.”
Pena also serves on a task force that breaks down access to local government, Valladares said.
“She’s part of a group of leaders helping create general access for information for people who live in Independence,” he said.
Pena has gone through immigration counseling services through St. Patrick’s, receiving training on how to help people fill out immigration forms to qualify for programs.
“There are people who need help getting connected with services,” Pena said. “These things are very worthwhile in my life because I’ve learned a lot — and I’m still learning — to connect with certain agencies. And if I don’t know, I just call somebody. I have good friends. Some of them have graduated to the afterlife.”
Pena helps people in private.
“She helps a lot of people without other people knowing about it,” Villastrigo said. “Taking them to doctor’s appointments, finding out the resources they need to get help. Sometimes when there’s something that happens in the community, she’s usually the first one to find out and figure out how the community can help or what can be done.”
People in the community know they can count on Pena.
“They know that I know some people, and if I don’t know, I’ll find out,” she said. “All the people that I have served have helped me learn what I know, because if they hadn’t checked with me, I had to look for it or ask for it, I wouldn’t know.”
Pena said she has learned there are a lot of good people in the community — and in government offices.
“There are good lawyers and good people out there that really care,” she said. “Sometimes people don’t understand. People have the attitude, ‘Those state people; those government people,’ but I know a lot of people who have really helped.”
Pena continues to help in whatever capacity she can.
“She has a spirit of wanting to help without getting anything back,” Villastrigo said.
As Pena watches her mentors, teachers and friends age, she worries about the youth. She sees them texting each other in the same room, or sucked into video games.
“They’re isolated from people nowadays,” she said. “If you don’t communicate with people, you miss out on a real love connection. Or you can’t help them because you don’t see what they need, because they’re stuck in their own little world.”