She can remember holding her dad’s hand, clutching it tightly as she melted into the huddle that her family formed as they migrated from shelter to shelter.
“Some days it came down to food or shelter and our father would choose to feed us,” recalled Monica, the second youngest of nine children – all girls – born to Juan and Maria Contreras.
In 1978, the Contreras family crossed the Mexican border and settled in Los Angeles, Calif., in search of the American dream. But for years it remained elusive and they lived in poverty.
Evictions, meager food and scant clothing – it’s all something of a blur for 22-year-old Monica, a Mercyhurst University social work major, who was born several years before her family left LA in 1994 after their home was destroyed by the deadly Northridge earthquake. One of the elder daughters and her husband had found work in Erie so they all headed East, where life took a turn for the better.
Today, her parents maintain the same jobs with a local plastics manufacturer that they’ve had for the past 16 years; they own their own home and have nine “happy, healthy and successful daughters,” said Monica, who believes wholeheartedly in the American dream and is determined to replicate it for others. For that, she has received a $1,000 “Dream Support Grant” from the National Society of Leadership and Success, which has 243,240 members at 339 colleges nationwide. The purpose of the grant is to support individuals in achieving their dreams.
Monica intends to put that money toward earning her bachelor’s degree from Mercyhurst. From there, she wants to work at an agency like Erie’s Multicultural Community Resource Center as a licensed bilingual social worker and assist immigrants in achieving their own dreams of educational, social and economic fulfillment.
“I’ve been back to Mexico several times and it’s sad because people born into poverty stay in poverty,” she said. “They limit themselves because they know that expecting more is unrealistic.”
Whether she’s talking to emotionally troubled teens or truants through different social service programs she’s been involved in locally, her message is always the same: Don’t give up because of a label. This is America. You don’t have to stay where you are. You can set a new course and follow your dream.
Monica began her college education at Mercyhurst’s North East campus, where she served as student government president while studying criminal justice, a career path she later switched to social work. In 2011, she became a founding member of the campus’ chapter of the National Society of Leadership and Success, advised by Darcey Kemp, dean of students. Despite being on the Erie campus now, Monica commutes to North East to fulfill her duties as the chapter’s first president.
“It’s a commitment I made and I think it is important for students to learn leadership skills and how to interact professionally,” she said. “If I can be a good role model for others, then I’m happy to do it.”
Monica also continues to give back to the North East campus through her internship with Coalition Pathways. She works with Student Life to schedule regular outreach on topics such as drug awareness, domestic violence and abuse of prescription medications.
Monica learned long ago the rewards of helping others. She remembers as a small child, Christmastime in LA, and her father was full of angst because he couldn’t afford to pay a parking fine and still get his children Christmas presents.
“I remember he went to court and told the judge of his struggles and the police officer dropped the complaint,” said Monica. “Later, the policeman arrived at our door with presents for all of us. That meant so much because we always had to share our gifts – if my sister got a coloring book, I got the box of crayons – so, to have anything extra was special.”
But she never felt cheated that she had to share. Her sisters, she said, were and are her “army of support.” All but three live in Erie now. Meanwhile, the Contreras family continues to grow with the addition of grandchildren, – six girls and, as Monica puts it, “My dad finally got a break,” – six boys.