Nov. 01--DANBURY -- Eliette Matos' experience seems almost tailor-made for her next challenge as chairman of the Latino Scholarship Fund.
The Bethel entrepreneur and mother of three will combine her business acumen and passion for education to lead the organization, which was founded to help the area Latino high school graduates pursue higher education.
Matos will be in charge of the 19th annual Latino Scholarship Fund's gala Nov. 9 at the Amber Room Colonnade, which is the organization's primary fundraiser for the scholarships.
Ileana Velazquez, who helped start the group, chaired it for all but three years. Her husband, Peter Kalman, served as the treasurer.
They are moving to Florida and needed to pass the leadership on.
"I thought long and hard about who could I turn to take this over," said Velazquez, who was honored as the 2013 Latina Citizen of the Year by the Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission of Connecticut.
She asked Matos, who started the first Spanish language newspaper in the area.
Matos' husband, Sean Toland, has assumed Kalman's role as treasurer.
"Eliette's perfect," Velazquez said. "She's got energy. It takes a big commitment. It takes a lot of passion. In a way, they (the new leaders) are mirror images of us. We are both Latino women and both men are non-Latino but committed to the mission of the organization."
The organization was established in 1995 by residents who were concerned that less than 20 percent of Danbury High School's Latino graduates were going on to higher education.
Once the group started, it raised $10,000 in six months. In 1996, it awarded 10 scholarships to Latino graduates of Danbury High School.
Since then, the Latino Scholarship Fund has awarded more than $700,000 in scholarship money to more than 400 Latino graduates in schools in greater Danbury, including Bethel, Brookfield, New Fairfield, New Milford, Newtown, Redding, and Ridgefield.
These days, the fund's website notes that nearly 80 percent of Danbury high's Latino graduates go on to post-high school education and training, which is more than the state average for Latinos.
The fund's criteria requires that student scholarship winners have at least one grandparent who came from a Spanish speaking country.
One scholarship winner was Maria del Carmen, a 32-year-old graduate of Immaculate High School and the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
She owns her own photography company and one of her specialties is photographing mothers and newborns.
She was awarded a $1,500 scholarship from the fund, which she said was a big help to her.
She said the recognition from the Latino Scholarship Fund was important too, especially as a Latina woman, she said it meant a lot "to have them say that 'We want to thank you for working so hard, and here is what we can give you to help you.'"
She's been invited to speak at the gala.
"I believe in education and I will show how the doors have opened for me," she said. "I'm achieving things I never thought possible in my wildest dreams."
Matos said she became involved with the Latino Scholarship Fund through her newspaper, El Canillita, as well as her family's financial support of the fund.
"It's not difficult to fall in love with something when you can see the results," Matos said. "Education is the key to solving so many ills. It's important to give access to education to as many people as possible. We all benefit from it."
The community, business owners and area residents benefit from the fund because when students can get schooling they will give back to the community, she said.
The Latino population in the Danbury area is growing at a fast pace, and 25 percent of kindergartners in Danbury schools are now Hispanic, Velazquez said.
"For the area to continue to thrive and be as successful as it has been you have to have an educated population," she said. "If we don't take seriously investing in these children, we are not investing in our community."
Both Matos and Velazquez credited volunteers for the success of the Latino Scholarship Fund.
"If it were not for family and friends, it would be an be an impossible mission. We have people who are supporting us year in and year out. It's really been an incredible endeavor," Velazquez said.
Matos said the volunteers, which she is expanding, is very passionate.
"We would not be working so well without them. We have a whole team of people behind us, made up of family, friends, the Latino board and our committees," Matos said. "I have a very high mountain to climb to get where she (Ileana) is but I'm willing to do it."
(c)2013 The News-Times (Danbury, Conn.)
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Original headline: Latino Scholarship Fund helps students and community
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