En español | As a young, poor migrant farm worker in the late 1950s, Carmen Pola sometimes went to bed with no dinner.
"I promised myself if I ever had children, I wouldn't let that happen to them," she said.
Today Pola, 73, a longtime activist in Boston's Mission Hill neighborhood, is a leading voice in the city's Latino community and a tireless advocate for people in need.
Over the years, she has drawn on her migrant worker experience to organize and rally her neighbors. She has worked to bring together the city's older residents to address common problems such as access to health care and jobs; advocated to improve public schools; battled for better public housing conditions; and pushed for quality care for children with mental health issues.
Pola "is one of the strongest advocates that I have met," said Emily Shea, who heads Boston's Commission on Affairs of the Elderly. "She has the best interests of seniors in the community at heart."
Bringing people together
Mission Hill is one of Boston's most racially and economically diverse neighborhoods. With a population of more than 16,000, the area is home to several prominent universities and colleges, world-renowned hospitals, public housing projects and a historic district. College students and medical professionals, longtime residents and recent arrivals from around the world are neighbors.
"She's caring, a fighter, loyal and outspoken," said John Jackson, administrative coordinator for the Tobin Community Center, a city-run agency in Mission Hill that offers educational, social arts and other programs.
Pola is quick to speak out if residents let their differences come between them, he said. "She likes bringing people together."
Next page: Empowering seniors to get things done. »
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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