Pola said Mission Hill "has different groups of seniors — white, black, Asian, Latino, Jewish, Russian." The different groups "weren't communicating with each other, yet we all have the same needs. The only difference is political clout and the color of our skin."
To highlight the contributions of the city's Latino seniors, Pola helped establish Boston's annual Hispanic Heritage Luncheon 10 years ago, an event that attracts hundreds of attendees. In 2009, she and three friends founded the Legacy Project at the Tobin Community Center. It offers social activities, exercise classes and computer instruction to Mission Hill's older residents free of charge.
The project attracts participants from every corner of the neighborhood. Pola would like to expand it citywide.
"She empowers seniors"
"Carmen is a great example of the impact one person can make on a community," said Linda F. Fitzgerald, president of AARP Massachusetts. "She empowers seniors in her community and gets things done, no matter how challenging."
In recognition of her advocacy on behalf of people 50 and older, Pola has been named the Massachusetts recipient of the 2012 Andrus Award for Community Service, the association's highest volunteer honor and named for Ethel Percy Andrus, the AARP founder.
A native of Río Piedras, Puerto Rico, Pola moved to California with her mother as a teenager. When she arrived in Boston in 1971 with her husband, Juan, and their four children, she was stunned to find a city cleaved by deep racial divides. However, that didn't stop her from diving into community issues.
"I found good people who took me under their wings and helped me understand Boston," she said.
Before retiring, Pola's employment career included a job with the Mayor's Office of Constituent Services and positions as a recruiter for medical schools and as a consultant on human services issues.
Her advocacy work and volunteerism continue at a frenetic pace. Ask what projects are next, and Pola has a list: preserving affordable housing to keep longtime residents from being squeezed out of the neighborhood, helping older residents who are dealing with addiction problems and writing about social issues.
Passing on to the next generation of activists the knowledge gained from her years of community organizing is of growing importance to Pola.
"I would like to teach young people how to do what I do. It's not science, just commitment," she said.
"We can't slow down. There's too much to do. My mother is 93 and she is still active. She has set a good example."
Jill Gambon is a writer living in West Newbury, Mass.
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