Ashley Paz, 15, of Central Islip, one of 13 girls...

Ashley Paz, 15, of Central Islip, one of 13 girls and young women who graduated from a program Tuesday evening in Patchogue that teachs job skills as well as educational and work opportunities.  Credit: Randee Daddona

After a seven-week program, 13 Suffolk County Hispanic girls and young women say they are ready to take on the world.

The Patchogue social service nonprofit SEPA Mujer, recognized the achievement of the girls and women between the ages of 14 to 20, during a graduation ceremony Tuesday evening. The graduates were heralded for completing the youth program, Girls A.C.T., or Activists, Creating, Transforming.

The program has spent the past several years teaching Hispanic girls and young women job skills, professional training, and introducing them to local colleges and universities. It focuses on serving Hispanic immigrant communities in Suffolk County and Long Island.

“I think it’s really important if they’re not familiar with the opportunities as first generation immigrants or immigrants themselves and this lets them know about resources available,” said Dilcia Erazo, SEPTA Mujer's Latina youth and civic engagement coordinator. “These skills are essential to being here. Their parents came here to have a better future for their children readily available and they will pass along these skills to other community members.”

The nonprofit has been an advocacy group helping predominantly Hispanic immigrant women and girls on Long Island for nearly 30 years. Organizers said they formed the Girls ACT program to teach leadership and empower participants with health and wellness and workforce development.

Several in the class told stories of their background, talked about hobbies, and what they gained from the program. They received their diplomas at the Patchogue Medford Library, where afterward, they and posed for photos under balloons.

Hizell Luna, 15, of Center Moriches, said her family immigrated from Mexico.

"It really teaches you so much about your ancestors that had immigrated from their country to the United States and shows you the obstacles and struggles your people had to go through just because of the language they spoke, the color of their skin and overall just because of their ethnicity," she said. 

SEPA Mujer's legal director Juana Torres said the program started five years ago after two teenage girls from Brentwood were slain, allegedly by MS-13 gang members.

Since then, the Suffolk County Department of Labor has sponsored 50 participants and SEPA Mujer is seeking additional private funding to expand the program.

"We would love to integrate this program in every school because in essence it is teaching life skills," Torres said.

The latest graduating class attended an August news conference in Babylon with Gov. Kathy Hochul where she marked progress in Suffolk County on state "red flag" and gun safety laws. The students met and took pictures with the governor as well as discussed networking opportunities with government officials, Erazo said.

Before graduating, they also learned about contributing to social movements, campaigns and advocacy and also helped organize a soccer tournament as a fundraiser for the organization

The program includes political analysis, public speaking, working with elected officials and college preparation, according to the curriculum.

Students visited Suffolk County Community College, SUNY Stony Brook and SUNY Old Westbury to prepare for college and financial aid applications.

Students also learned about mental health and reproductive health services. They also received training in office skills such as answering phones and emails and professional skills like eye contact and handshakes, Erazo said.


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