Su Casa social worker ministers to Hispanic immigrants
June 4, 2012
By Patricia McGeever
Growing up on the family dairy farm in Defiance County, Ohio, Margaret Singer didn’t have much contact with Spanish-speaking people. But, the strong Catholic faith instilled in her by her parents, her older sister’s insistence that she learn Spanish, along with a stint in the Peace Corps, put her life on a course that would help thousands of poor and desperate Latinos.
“I think the whole area of immigration I really had never thought of when I was a young child. But of course when I went into social work at the University of Dayton, I began to think about working with different nationalities,” Singer said.
She is a bilingual caseworker at, and one of the founders of, the Su Casa Hispanic Center of Cincinnati. The organization was founded in 1997 to respond to the increasing number of immigrants arriving from Latin America and Mexico.
“It’s not a job for her. It’s her way of life,” says Su Casa Director Giovanna Álvarez. “She has a heart of gold and a wealth of knowledge. I look up to her since I got here because of her dedication and passion to serve the Hispanic community.”
After graduating from the University of Dayton with a degree in social work, Singer and her sister, Martha, joined the Peace Corps. The sisters asked to be assigned together. They were both sent to Colombia but to opposite ends of the country. Singer served in the most poverty stricken and rural areas of the western part of the country. She worked on a pastoral program in the local diocese called Movement of Social Leadership. The goal was to educate and train the poor and rural young people so they could improve their living situations economically and socially.
“When I was in South America I had been working with the diocese and I was working with a couple of different priests in this program. One of the priests before I left, he said to me, ‘Margaret, when you get back to the States I don’t want you to forget what you saw here and I don’t want you to forget how you felt about how some of the families have to live.’ It kind of took me off balance because I thought how could you think I could forget this.”
That priest, Comboni Father Samuel Gonzalez said via email, “Margaret is a blessing for friends and many humble people.” He added, “After 38 years, they still miss Margaret in the mountains of Santander, Colombia.”
Father Gonzalez and Singer would work together again. This time he’d be the recipient of her generosity. Years after their first meeting, violence and political persecution forced the priest to leave his homeland. Father Gonzalez considered relocating to Canada or Brazil.
When Singer heard he’d left Colombia, she suggested he come to Cincinnati. She offered him refuge and the Archdiocese of Cincinnati offered him a job serving the increasing number of Hispanic immigrants in area parishes.
After the Peace Corps, Singer didn’t have the occasion to use her Spanish for a good 10 years. She worked in an orphanage in Dayton and a social action office before becoming a community organizer. Then she got a call to work at a refugee camp in Texas. This was when war was raging in Central America and a number of Salvadorians and Guatemalans were fleeing. She volunteered there for about 18 months. She began working as a translator and her work evolved into what is Su Casa today.
“The people I specifically work with are 70 to 80 percent from Guatemala,” said Singer. They may need a translator at a school, hospital, or for a court hearing or an interview. They may need assistance filling out forms to help them find work and housing. She’s made such an impact on the lives of some of the immigrants that they’ve made her godmother to their children. She has 20 so far.
Singer recently received the Everyday Freedom Hero Award from the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center and the YWCA for her tireless efforts to help the immigrant community.
Father Gonzalez calls Margaret a faithful disciple of Christ, living out the Gospel of Matthew 25, “…I assure you as often as you did it for one of my least brothers you did it for me.”
She has 20 godchildren to show for it. And counting.