Meet Juan Carlos
For Juan Carlos Vasquez-Valencia, the phrase "coming full circle" is particularly significant. As the Program Manager for Adult Education, he manages New York Cares’ citizenship preparation and ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) projects, engaging volunteers who help prospective citizens navigate an increasingly complex application and review process.
When Juan Carlos looks at the clients who attend our programs, he sees himself as a young man. Twenty years ago, Juan Carlos immigrated to the United States from El Salvador and experienced firsthand the challenges of adapting to a new country. He recalls, "I think that one of the biggest challenges for me and for most immigrants was adapting to the culture, and that includes language, traditions, and just how to navigate the system in general. I felt that not knowing the language was a big disadvantage for me."
Juan Carlos's first interaction with volunteers was at a public library in New Jersey:
"Through friends, I found out that the library had English classes, and I was able to obtain a library card and information about those classes. I returned to the following week, and they had a volunteer for me, ready to help start my journey! I will never forget that moment."
That formative experience with volunteering set him on the path to getting his GED, going to college, and becoming a volunteer himself. Juan Carlos loves New York City, or, as he describes it, “...the only place I’d ever want to live.” He got involved with New York Cares as a volunteer because he wanted to give back to his community:
“Eventually, I learned about some of the opportunities with New York Cares and the work they were doing throughout the city. I knew I wanted to be part of that. I was curious about any projects where I could use my bilingual skills, and that's when I came across their citizenship program. I volunteered on a lot of projects, but the citizenship projects were the ones where I felt that I had a unique skill. I felt important."
From volunteer to Program Manager
In 2018, as he was finishing his degree in Business Administration from Brooklyn College, Juan Carlos inquired about job opportunities with New York Cares. "I wanted to start my professional career in a place that was meaningful for me," he explains. He began as a Seasonal Associate during the 2018 Coat Drive and was subsequently hired for the Adult Education Manager role this March, the same month he graduated. "Things just started to fall into place for me," he says, "and I feel very grateful to be here."
On citizenship and immigration
When asked about how his personal experience impacts his work with our citizenship programs, Juan Carlos’s passion is evident:
"It's very personal for me because every project is basically a piece of my story. Whether it's ESOL classes, literacy, and citizenship preparation most of all, I feel that every time I work on a volunteer campaign, it's a part of me that I'm sharing with the world and with our community partners. It touches me on many different levels. Me and also my immediate family, (mainly my wife Lydia) because my family really guided me through my journey, and I get emotional thinking about it. Every project has a little piece of me in there."
Juan Carlos has experienced firsthand the challenges facing immigrants and notes that the process has only become more difficult in recent years. He explains, "Because of the laws changing, and you know, the current administration too, it is more difficult to be an immigrant in the United States, even in New York which is supposed to be a sanctuary city. If a person does not have a chance to adjust their immigration status, they sort of live in the shadows." He observes that many immigrants are afraid to access resources like those provided by New York Cares because they fear being identified to the authorities. One of his goals is to help educate immigrant communities about libraries, community centers, and other safe places to access language classes and other free resources.
He also feels that current political rhetoric has increased fear among immigrants, particularly those coming from Central and South America. "Under the Obama administration, there were a lot of deportations. It was not a perfect situation either," he notes. He goes on to say, "I think that now, because of the way our president delivers messages, people feel the threat being more in their face. Obama was a little more soft-spoken and people would say ‘we understand he's trying to do something,’ whereas the current president is very straightforward that he does not want immigrants.”
When asked what he would say to encourage volunteers to sign up for our citizenship preparation and ESOL projects, Juan Carlos responded:
"Regarding helping immigrants on their citizenship journey, and from my own experience, it makes a difference just being able to fill out those forms correctly. Helping the client feel confident because you devoted time to help them complete this form, and it's now on the way to Homeland Security to be reviewed. That's a huge thing. You know, that's basically people's future in those papers. It might seem small for some people, but it changes peoples' lives. After becoming a citizen, I was able to sleep at night, to have peace of mind and so did my family."
Our story continues…
Outside of the office, Juan Carlos is an avid soccer fan, tennis player, and animal lover. He and his wife have a 12-year-old puggle named Henry who they adopted from an animal shelter. When Juan Carlos is not spending the weekend enjoying the beach, he is dreaming about setting more time aside for traveling: "Before I was a citizen, I didn't feel safe traveling with just a green card and now I want to try to explore the rest of the world. Visiting at least one country on every continent would be nice!"
From learning English from a volunteer to volunteering himself to making it possible for other volunteers to support prospective citizens, Juan Carlos has truly come full circle. He's most proud of being the first person in his family to earn a college degree. He feels that getting a degree in English is, "...even more encouraging for Spanish-speaking people and any immigrant who has to learn a new language first and then go to school." Juan Carlos credits his wife for supporting him while also attending school herself. He goes on to say, "The fact that I work for an organization that cares about people also makes me very proud. Being able to jump from college to New York Cares, that was huge for me. It's like a dream. Sometimes I just sit at my desk and think, 'Am I really here?"
Did you know?
In 2018, nearly 8,000 of our volunteers served 22,000 adults in our Adult Education programs through ESOL classes, job readiness training, citizenship application clinics, English conversation groups, and citizenship exam preparation.
Help inspire the next Juan Carlos by signing up to volunteer with our ESOL and citizenship preparation programs.