Hispanic Alliance of Southeastern Connecticut welcomes new executive director to continue founder’s legacy

Lina Agudelo, executive director of the Hispanic Alliance of Southeastern Connecticut, at the State Street Group offices in New London on Wednesday, August 3, 2022. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

New London: Since 2000, the Hispanic Alliance of Southeastern Connecticut has known primarily one executive director and that is its founder, Alejandro Melendez-Cooper.

After his death in November last year, his son Claudio Melendez-Cooper took over as interim chief executive and took on the tough task of finding a replacement for his father, someone qualified with a connection to the community

Melendez-Cooper, believing she had found someone, hired Lina Agudelo, 42, a former social worker and active member of the community. Last week, Agudelo began her role as the nonprofit’s new executive director.

Agudelo said the organization, which aims to advance Hispanic contributions to the Southeastern Connecticut community, is dear to his family.

Agudelo remembers immigrating to the city from Colombia with his family in 1999 and not knowing anyone. One of the first people they met was Alejandro Melendez-Cooper, at a local restaurant. They were able to interact in Spanish, and her parents told her they wanted to start a business. From that moment on, Agudelo said Alejandro gave his help unconditionally and guided them to start a business, calling him a great mentor.

With his help, Agudelo’s family was able to open a restaurant on Bank Street for a couple of years.

“That’s what the alliance does, it provides mentoring,” Agudelo said.

She said it’s a place where if someone has a question they can come to the Hispanic Alliance, and the organization, using its network, can refer people to agencies and resources.

“Dad’s work, that energy and vision, is carried over to Lina, someone I know who can do it and wants to do it,” Melendez-Cooper said.

Maria Amparo Cruz-Saco, an economics professor at Connecticut College, said her late husband built “an amazing concept with a strategic vision” that didn’t exist in the community when he founded the alliance.

“Lina interacted with Alejandro and knew that Lina was also an emerging leader,” Cruz-Saco said. “I believe Lina will set the direction and lead the organization in this changing post-pandemic demographic and socioeconomic context that is presenting new challenges and opportunities to our community.”

Prior to this position, Agudelo worked for Safe Future for four years, starting as an attorney and working her way up to housing coordinator. In recent years, Agudelo has returned to school to study sociology at Three Rivers Community College and plans to transfer to another local four-year university.

Agudelo said he hopes to continue and further develop the alliance’s current programs.

The alliance has offered a scholarship program with 320 recipients since 2002. Cruz-Saco said many of the recipients are now professionals, such as doctors and teachers. They also have La Latina and network SHINEtwo programs that empower young Latinas through mentoring, leadership courses and scholarships.

Melendez-Cooper said they provide the organization’s programs and services free of charge to people in the community, regardless of their immigration status.

Using the COVID-19 relief funds, the alliance started an emergency assistance program called AYUDA in 2020 to provide one-time assistance to people with medical bills or rent until they are connected with another organization. Melendez-Cooper said about 800 people have helped this year.

Agudelo said his vision is to continue to promote the Hispanic community and open up opportunities to support it.

In May, the Hispanic Alliance signed a partnership with Eastern Connecticut State University to match the annual $2,500 scholarships awarded by the organization. Cruz-Saco said they hope to create a cohort of Hispanic Alliance graduates.

The Southeastern Connecticut Cultural Coalition awarded the Chestnut Street Playhouse and Hispanic Alliance an $11,000 grant in June to start a Norwich-based bilingual summer theater program for high school students. Melendez-Cooper said the effort began with Alejandro Melendez-Cooper making connections with those at the Garde Arts Center.

He added that the organization is also looking to start a summer youth enrichment program for younger children.

Agudelo, who is passionate about her new role, said she comes to add to the legacy of Alejandro Melendez-Cooper, a legacy she called “untouchable.”


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