‘I stopped living in fear’ Universidad Popular Launches Overcoming Barriers to Success

By: Ashmar Mandou

Lawndale News Chicago's Bilingual Newspaper - Local NewsThree years ago, Juana Martinez decided to stop living in darkness.

“I couldn’t limit myself anymore.  I had to discover what was out there for someone like me,” said Martinez.  As a blind woman, Martinez said for many years she was too afraid to walk outside of her own home for fear of what might happen to her.  “I allowed my fear, my disability to dictate my life and what I could do.”

That all changed when a friend of the church Martinez attended directed her to Universidad Popular, a non-profit organization that seeks to empower residents through educational programs and activities.  One program, in particular, transformed Martinez’s outlook on life.  Partially launched two years, Overcoming Barriers to Success is a program for adults and seniors with physical disabilities in Little Village and the surrounding communities.   The program aims to equip disabled participants with the skills and self-confidence to success in the workplace and in their respective communities.  However, directors at the organization have officially launched Overcoming Barriers to Success full-time this year and hope the program will lead the way in creating more opportunities for people living with a disability. 

“Overcoming Barriers to Success has completely changed my life,” said Martinez.  “People with disabilities, like me, are not often taken seriously.  We are often looked over and not treated with the respect that we deserve.  Sometimes people think it is okay to talk to us in a degrading way just because we have some disability, but they have to remember that we have much more to offer if we are given the resources to help us learn new skills.  That’s what I learned from participating in this program.  I know that I have much more to offer and I am more confident.” 

According to Universidad Popular, in 2008 there were 3,511 people with disabilities in the South Lawndale and Pilsen area, 58 percent of whom have not had a job in the last five years or have never had a job.  Only 13 percent of disabled people in the community worked full-time.  Executive Director of Universidad Popular Olivia Flores-Godinez said Overcoming Barriers to Success is a program that hopes to bring more job opportunities for people with disabilities. 

“I am very proud of the mission we have at our organization.  We are here to empower people like Juanita to go on and use the skills they learn here to good use.  We are here to knock down these barriers they face and let the community know that people with disabilities should enter the workforce without fear of being judged based on their special need,” said Flores-Godinez. 

Overcoming Barriers to Success consists of a digital literacy class that enables individuals to learn basic computer skills with a focus on job-training.  According to program director Abraham Celio, participants in the program learn how to fill out online applications, create a resume, and search for jobs.  “We are very proud of this program because we worked hand-in-hand with the community to find out what they needed.  We realized that were scarce programs out there designed for people with disabilities.  So to have this program be a success and to see people like Juana Martinez gain confidence, is truly a remarkable feeling,” said Celio. 

Overcoming Barriers to Success was made possible with the support from the Illinois Department of Human Services’ Division of Rehabilitation Services.  If you know someone who would be interested in the program, Celio encourages them to call Universidad Popular, at 773-733-5055. 

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