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First-generation American finds serving less-fortunate rewarding

Date: 09/28/2017

By Kev Moyè

Communications Specialist

Maria Solis is a community change agent, making a positive impact in numerous ways.

“Maria is a public servant who inspires people and helps to bring out the best in everyone,” said Margarita Solorzano, director of the Hispanic Women’s Organization of Arkansas. Solis’ benevolence is accompanied by a spirited personality.

“Maria is a leader,” said Kathy Rushing, Department of Human Services (DHS) Washington County office Division of Child Care and Early Childhood Education (DCCECE) family support specialist. “She’s good for team morale and has a very competitive spirit.”

To understand why Solis, a DHS Washington County office DCCECE family support specialist, is so compassionate and strong-willed, you have to journey back to her childhood in California.

A TOUGH SITUATION

Growing up in Southern California in the Los Angeles County city of South Montebello, Solis had to be resilient.

The second-oldest child of Mexican immigrants, she was the first-born American of her household. Solis’ family resided in an apartment that housed seven people. Outside their home, danger seemed to always be near.

“Our apartment complex was in the middle of gang violence and drug deals. Most of the families were on some sort of government assistance,” Solis said. “Many of the men that lived in our complex were members of a local gang.”

In the midst of chaos, danger – Solis’ parents were staunch disciplinarians. Unfortunately, Solis once received a grim lesson as to why her parents were so domineering.

“When I was 14, my best friend’s brother was shot and killed in their front door. He was only 13. It was gang-related,” Solis said. “My friend and I were in their restroom getting ready for our school dance when it happened. When the police arrived, it was like an animal had died. I heard one officer nonchalantly say to his detective, ‘It’s just a gang banger. No need for an investigation. We know what went down.’”

“As I waited for my dad and throughout the ride home, I cried – heavily,” Solis recalled. “I realized then that I did not want to be remembered as just another person in the streets.”

NON-TRADITIONAL CHILDHOOD

The murder was a terrifying ordeal. But sadly, some form of violence was common in the complex.

“Every day, gang members were at the front gate checking who came in. If the person was not known, they’d hold the individual at the gate until someone from the complex claimed them as a family member or friend,” she said. “I once witnessed gang members beat up a person for no apparent reason. They then made him apologize to us kids for having to witness him being beat on.”

The dangers of the apartment complex and having to perform several parental-like duties for her family often kept Solis from experiencing a traditional childhood.

“I grew up much faster than my peers,” she said. “While they were outside having fun, I was inside cooking meals for my siblings and my parents, who were still at work. At that time, it’s what I had to do.”

Solis’ parents championed hard work, but they also believed in generosity. Providing aid for Mexico natives who just arrived in South Montebello was the norm.

“We lived in a two-bedroom apartment. However, I can always remember having additional families living with us,” she said. “My father was the first to help any family that would immigrate to our area from Mexico.”

THE FAMILY GO-TO PERSON

Solis’ father migrated to the United States in 1976. Her mom brought the family over to join Mr. Trejo in 1978. A year later, Solis was born. As it turned out, she was the game-changer.

“Being a first-generation American, I was – and still am – the person someone will contact regarding anything that involves my parents,” she said. “I’ve been a family interpreter for as long as I can remember.”

Solis’ willingness to be active in the community was spurred by her father. Through his acts of kindness, she witnessed and experienced the power of charity.

“Weekends in our apartment complex were crazy, but everyone respected our family because my dad would do cookouts and invite the gang members over to eat,” Solis said. “Dad figured that if he took care of them, they would leave us alone. It worked. The gang members never offered drugs to either of my brothers or me.

“If there was any kind of confrontation between rival gangs, an influential member would stop by our apartment and encourage us to sleep on the floor that night because there may be some gun fire,” she said.

MOVING TO THE SOUTH

Solis survived the dangerous times. She graduated with honors from cosmetology school in July 1997, just a month after graduating from Montebello High School. Afterward, Solis was happy in California being a responsible adult. However, at the age of 26, Solis followed her parents, who relocated to Springdale.

Solis immediately became enamored with the topography of Northwest Arkansas and how the region was far less congested than Southern California.

“In California, I was always on the go,” she acknowledged. “So I’m glad this is where destiny brought me. I am proud to call Northwest Arkansas home.”

She may have been in a new environment, but the family obligations did not waver.

“I can recall a situation when I was at the Washington County DHS office to help my cousin interpret the ARKids application,” Solis said. “I learned that there were only two employees who spoke Spanish for a county that has a huge Hispanic population. That really surprised me.”

Solis’ initial Arkansas DHS encounter revealed to her that the Hispanic community was in need of assistance. Within a couple years, she was hired for a clerical position in the Division of County Operations (DCO) Washington County unit. However, she ultimately settled into her current role for DCCECE in 2013. It’s a duty the mother of two absolutely adores.

“I have been content as can be in this division trying to help families to be self-sufficient and become better people for our community,” she said.

Solorzano said, “In Montebello, Maria was exposed to a wide range of experiences and diversity. Additionally, Maria has a similar background to that of many families who have relocated to Northwest Arkansas. Her experiences have shaped her perspective on life in general.”

Wanting the best for all residents of Northwest Arkansas, Solis embraced several civic service endeavors.

“Maria is always eager to learn,” Rushing said. “Taking on projects is an opportunity for her to learn, grow and become the best version of herself.”

MAKING A DIFFERENCE IN ARKANSAS

Upon arriving in Arkansas, Solis had already earned an associate’s degree in child development from East Los Angeles Community College. Solis later attained an associate’s degree in early childhood education from Northwest Arkansas Community College. She’s currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree from Arkansas State University (ASU) through its online program. Solis is also a regular contributor to the ASU online learning blog.

Despite being a mom, student and DHS employee, Solis never grows tired of serving, regardless of the capacity.

“I try to involve myself in as many community activities as I can, especially if they’re associated with my children,” she said. “Being a DHS employee has made a positive impact in my life.”

Rushing said, “Maria loves her duties for DCCECE, and this job gives her the opportunity to help people become their best.”

In regard to community outreach, Solis’ involvements include being a Hispanic Women’s Organization of Arkansas (HWOA) committee member, overseeing the 2017 NWA Cinco De Mayo Festival, coordinating interpreter duties for the Hispanic community to both the Springdale School District and DHS, conducting parenting classes for Spanish-speaking residents for the Springdale Coordinated School Health program, serving on the American Heart Association “Vestido Rojo” campaign and the 2017 Community Outreach FBI Citizens Academy, and managing a youth soccer team.

“If I change one child I have done my job,” Solis said. “If I help one family strive to pursue their goals, I have done my job.”

Overall, Solis’ huge capacity and desire to serve her fellow man and perseverance to achieve epitomizes the “American Dream.”

“Maria is a highly motivated person who has worked hard to achieve success,” Solorzano said. “She always brings a positive energy that spreads among those who are working around her.”

(It is for all of these reasons that Maria Solis was nominated and featured for the Living the Mission series at DHS, which focuses on individuals who go above and beyond their typical functions. If you know someone who lives the mission of DHS and should be featured for the Living the Mission series, contact Kev Moyè at kevin.moye@dhs.arkansas.gov.)

Arkansas Department
of Human Services
(501) 682-1001

TTY: 1-800-285-1131 or dial 711 for Arkansas Relay Service

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