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North Hempstead honors 2 Hispanic residents who make the community proud

Ren Zelaya, honored by North Hempsted Town in

Ren Zelaya, honored by North Hempsted Town in recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month and his community involvement, poses near a photo he took that is part of the Latinx Thriving exhibit at Westbury Arts. Credit: Linda Rosier

Reynolds "Ren" Zelaya is a name synonymous with Westbury.

Zelaya, a longtime Westbury resident, was honored Tuesday by North Hempstead Town officials at a Hispanic Heritage Month celebration for his work in the community. He is the president of Westbury Schools Parent Teacher Association Council and is a secretary for the Hispanic United Association of Westbury, a nonprofit dedicated to educating and empowering the village’s growing Latino population.

Town Councilwoman Viviana Russell, whose district covers Westbury, has known Zelaya for more than 10 years. She lauded his commitment to the PTA Council.

"I can’t think of anyone that’s more dedicated to ensuring that the children in our school district get the best of everything they deserve," Russell told Newsday on Monday. "He makes sure that they have opportunities."

Zelaya, 50, is a project manager for Lowitt Alarms in Hicksville during the day, but on nights and weekends he coordinates events and holds fundraisers for the school district. He started off as a translator and worked his way to president of the council. He and all three of his children are graduates of Westbury High School.

"I believe in our students," Zelaya said. "I’m very passionate about making a change and I’m passionate about helping the community, through the schools, to overcome stereotypes and help our students thrive."

His parents, Reynaldo and Gloria, emigrated from Honduras in the 1960s. Zelaya was born in New Jersey, but moved to the Westbury area when his father began work at the New York Institute of Technology. He recalled a time when he and his family were outsiders in the community, but now his Central American culture is represented throughout the village.

"I come from a time when we were such a small minority, and now we have our own art exhibit in an art gallery in Westbury," Zelaya said. "It’s a personal point of pride for me to see any of the Latino community members thrive, get ahead and get recognition."

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Port Washington Police Officer Valerie Smith wears many hats in the community she patrols.

Smith, 32, joined the force in 2018 and has become a fixture at street fairs, schools and around the neighborhood. She coaches cheerleaders in kindergarten through sixth grade for Port Washington Youth Activities. Her dedication was recognized by North Hempstead Councilwoman Mariann Dalimonte, a fourth-generation Port Washington resident, who recommended that Smith be honored at the town’s Hispanic Heritage Month celebration on Oct. 5.

"She already has developed a following," Dalimonte said. "She inspires children with discussions about the importance of school and strong academics, good sportsmanship and potential career paths."

At street fairs in Port Washington, Smith’s face-painting booth is known to have long lines.

"I wanted to find a way to build a bridge between the community and the police officers, and really get to know the kids," said Smith, a resident of Massapequa.

Smith, who is of Puerto Rican descent, is one of two Spanish-speaking police officers on the force. Being bilingual helps her develop relationships in the community, she said.

"It’s always good when I’m there because I’ll be able to translate for detectives and even if it’s my own call, I'm able to talk to them on a different level because they know that we’re from the same heritage," Smith said.

She is also a member of the Nassau County Police Hispanic Society and said she always pays respect to her heritage and ancestors, especially to her grandmother, Margarita Estramerra, who left Puerto Rico for New York at the age of 14. Though her grandmother passed when she was a child, Smith pays homage to her and her sacrifice by using her traditional empanada recipe.

"I bring them to the police department and everyone loves them," she said. "That’s a piece of my heritage that I love."

CULTURAL PRIDE

Hispanic Heritage Month is celebrated to highlight the achievements and contributions of Hispanic Americans. The celebration runs from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 to coordinate with the anniversary of independence for Latin American countries Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. Mexico and Chile celebrate their independence days on Sept. 16 and 18, respectively.

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