Maite Arce, executive director of the foundation, founded the nonprofit after growing up as the child of Mexican immigrants who had trouble accessing information and resources in their new country. The foundation has partnerships with mostly faith-based community groups, such as St. Cajetan, to organize events and programs that inform Hispanics about education, voting, the environment and other issues, as well as to promote responsible citizenship and community involvement. St. Cajetan is one of the oldest Hispanic Catholic parishes in the Denver Archdiocese. Over a three-day visit in Washington in mid-September, the youths' schedule included a meeting with Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, both Colorado Democrats, to express their concern for Browns Canyon and to promote scholarships for Hispanic students. The canyon, southwest of the Denver metro area, is a popular place for hiking, camping, viewing wildlife, fishing and white-water rafting. Udall has proposed that Congress designate it as national monument or wildlife preserve. It's a place the youths and many others have grown to love, they said. Last year, the Hispanic Access Foundation and Environmental Learning for Kids sponsored a fishing education day there; 250 families participated in the trip, the first of its kind for many in the group.
This past summer, 68 youths and their parents went on a camping trip to the canyon. Udall has said giving a special designation to Browns Canyon would bring jobs to the state and put the area "on the map" and attract visitors. It also needs protection, advocates say, because illegal roads in the area have led "to erosion and habitat destruction." Linda Sosa, a spokeswoman for St. Cajetan, said considers herself a second mother to the seven 12- to 19-year-old girls she brought to Washington. Hispanic immigrants to the United States "don't know the systems. I don't want that for these kids," she said, adding that the Catholic Church has a role in educating Hispanics about how government works.
"The church is more than prayer, we can be the voices outside the church." Sosa has taught catechism classes for 30 years at St. Cajetan, which was established in 1922. Her involvement has given her a connection to parish youths. All but two of the St. Cajetan girls were on their first trip to Washington. Speaking a mix of English and Spanish throughout the day, several of them mentioned to a Catholic News Service reporter they were "missing the mountains."
Money for their trip came from a combination of fundraisers, parish donations and matching funds from the Hispanic Access Foundation. The summer camping trip to Browns Canyon gave them a chance to see wildlife and to go white-water rafting on the Arkansas River -- and it sparked the youths' interest in protecting the canyon. They began asking Sosa what they could do, which led to her teaming up with the foundation and coordinating the trip and a chance to talk to Udall and Bennet. Arce told CNS that the group's interest in the outdoors and the environment is reflected in a 2012 survey on Latinos and the environment, conducted by the Sierra Club and the National Council of La Raza. Nine in 10 respondents said people "have moral responsibility to take care of God's creation on this earth -- the wilderness, and forests, the oceans, lakes and rivers." During a picnic lunch in Lafayette Park across from the White House, where they headed later that afternoon to talk to staffers, Annalisa Martinez told CNS that Udall and Bennet "were very involved in hearing what we had to say." The oldest in the group, she is finishing an associate's degree in early childhood education. Her niece, 12 year-old Anastasia Martinez was the youngest. She'd like to become a geologist or horse trainer.
"My mother and I grew up in those mountains," she said. "If they were destroyed it would break our hearts." Jennie Hurrieta, 17, told CNS the group had a lot of support from St. Cajetan Parish, especially from its pastor, Theatine Father Tomas Fraile. "Father Tomas was very supportive, he baptized all of us, he really wants us to succeed," she said, adding that the priest encourages them to be leaders in their community and their church. "This world isn't ours, it's God's, we are preserving it for future generations," she added.
"Linda Sosa and the students are doing a wonderful job going to D.C. and talking to senators," Father Fraile told CNS later in a telephone interview.
"If we Christians and Catholics believe in God, we have a moral responsibility to take care of God's children the same way we have the responsibility of taking care of the whole of God's creation."
Copyright (c) 2012 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
By Chelsea Weikart Catholic News Service