Peruvian immigrant Nataly Castillo of Huntington said she joined the...

Peruvian immigrant Nataly Castillo of Huntington said she joined the group because she was "looking for how I could help the community and help women like me." Credit: Howard Simmons

A group of immigrant women are on their way to becoming community leaders after graduating from a course taught by a Patchogue-based nonprofit.

SEPA Mujer Inc. graduated 10 women from its leadership training course in a virtual ceremony on Friday.

The 10 graduates — in their 30s to 60s and who come from Central and South America — are the fourth group to complete the program. SEPA Mujer, which stands for Servicios Para el Avance de Mujer, or Services for the Advancement of Women, started the program in 2009 as way of encouraging civic engagement and has graduated more than 250. The training is divided into two levels, each consisting of 25 hours over five weeks. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, the program was held over Zoom this year.

The first level was completed by the women in April and the second finished last month. In the first part, women learn about the history of immigration policy, social movements and civil rights in the United States, along with the federal and state legislative process. The second level zeros in on the women’s experiences in their home countries, local government and Long Island’s history of immigration, as well as issues of feminism, gender inequality and increasing voter registration in immigrant communities.

"The idea is to bring together all these different themes and have them share their lived experience, here and in their countries of origin and have them learn collectively from each other," said Brittany Bye, senior community organizer for the organization. It’s about the women "creating a change in their community that will directly benefit them or their families or their neighbors."

That kind of change can range from organizing around social causes to advocating for their children in the school system, Bye said.

Bye and another facilitator for the group, Marcia Estrada, said that as much as they taught, they also learned from the participants.

"What surprised me the most was that the majority of the group were leaders and ready to be activists," Estrada said. "They knew a lot about protests and used examples of actions from their countries. Also, many were involved in local activism."

Peruvian immigrant Nataly Castillo of Huntington said she joined the group because she was "looking for how I could help the community and help women like me." Castillo, 39, works as a dental assistant but was a dentist in Peru, a profession she hopes to have again on Long Island one day.

The mother of two has joined Huntington Town’s Anti-Bias Task Force and hopes to motivate other women to get involved with their community.

"As women we can fight, we can help each other and we are powerful," Castillo said. "If you want to learn, this country is rich, so we just need to start asking questions and speaking out. There is always opportunity and open doors, you just have to knock and the doors will open."

SEPA Mujer, founded in 1993

  • The nonprofit has chapters in Patchogue, Riverhead, Huntington Station and Hampton Bays
  • Provides legal assistance to immigrant crime victims
  • Hosts a support group for victims of sexual assault
  • Runs a mentoring and leadership program for Latina youth
  • Has a 24/7 Spanish language hotline for victims of gender-based violence, hate crimes and wage theft
  • Campaigns for social justice, including on issues of violence against women, immigration, gender inequality and civil rights

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