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Gloria Wiggins, El Programa Hispano manager, dies

June 25, 1957 - Dec. 1, 2011
by: File photo Gloria Wiggins, director of El Programa Hispano, died on Thursday, Dec. 1. She won the McCoy award for exemplary service to the community last year.

Gloria Wiggins, division manager of Catholic Charities' El Programa Hispano in Gresham and a leader and advocate for Latino residents, low-income families and for children at risk, died Thursday, Dec. 1.

Wiggins, a Gresham resident, died at age 54 after a long battle with cancer, according to Catholic Charities.

A funeral service will be held at 11 a.m. Wednesday, Dec. 7, at St. Henry Catholic Church, 346 N.W. First St. In lieu of flowers, donations of toys for El Programa Hispano's Las Posadas Christmas event may be delivered to 138 N.E. Third St. from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays until Dec. 22.

'It's a huge loss, not only for Catholic Charities but in the low-income community and also for the Latino community in which she was a champion,' said Pietro Ferrari, executive director of Catholic Charities. 'She spoke very eloquently about the needs of the people with a voice of authenticity that she carried with her.'

Wiggins started working for El Programa Hispano in 2000 as a caseworker and became division manager in 2002. During her tenure as manager, Wiggins expanded the agency's outreach and services to the Latino community in Multnomah County. She grew the program's budget and its staff from 14 to 58 and reached out to political officials and other service agencies, said Doug Alles, director of social services for Catholic Charities.

She advocated especially for programs for Latino students and for victims of domestic violence.

Wiggins' tenure coincided with Latinos becoming the fastest-growing population in Oregon and in the Portland-metro area between 2000 and 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

With the national recession hitting native and foreign-born Latinos particularly hard, El Programa Hispano saw a huge increase in demand for its services, Alles said. Wiggins led her staff by example, devoting a tremendous amount of energy and time to her work and doing 'anything and everything there,' he said.

U.S. citizen

A Colombian immigrant who became a U.S. citizen in 2004, Wiggins often spoke to the news media on issues affecting Latino residents.

Wiggins told The Outlook in a May 2010 profile that she believed immigrants have enriched the United States, which was still a land of opportunity for them. Although immigrants, both documented and undocumented, sometimes had a negative perception from native-born citizens, she noted that they worked hard, supported the economy and paid taxes.

Wiggins was a founding member of the Coalition of Communities of Color, which works on behalf of Latino, African American, African immigrant and refugee, Asian/Pacific Islander, American Indian and Slavic communities. She also volunteered with community groups such as the Rockwood Urban Renewal Committee and Gresham Safety Blue Ribbon Task Force. In May 2011, she received the Hispanic Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce's Latino Community Service Award.

In April 2010, Wiggins received Multnomah County's Gladys McCoy Award for promoting 'culturally-specific service delivery, enhancing understanding of the county's diverse Latino community, and working for policy change with issues like domestic violence and minority academic performance.'

Despite her accomplishments, Wiggins was not one to seek the spotlight as she preferred to give her staff credit, Alles said.

Joining forces

Gresham resident Miguel Tellez, manager for Volunteers of America's Adelante program and a longtime friend, said Wiggins set the standard for how local social service agencies could work together in solving problems in underserved communities.

'She has been just a pillar for us,' said Tellez, who met Wiggins when she was a case worker at El Programa Hispano. After she became manager, Wiggins sought partnerships with other service agencies that largely worked independent of one another at the time, Tellez said.

Noting that many clients who use social service agencies may have more than one problem, Tellez said such collaborations made it easier for the agencies to refer their clients to each other, ensuring that they received the proper support.

Carmen Rubio, executive director of Latino Network in Portland, said Wiggins was a mentor who was honest and had a lot of integrity. She was also humble about the work she did on behalf of Latino residents, she said.

After she became executive director of Latino Network two years ago, Rubio said she sought Wiggins' advice on 'a million things,' from hiring staff and running an effective organization to approaching schools.

Rubio said she and Wiggins were working with other organizations across the state to form a leadership development program for Latino adults, as well as a research project on the state of Latinos in Multnomah County.

Wiggins told The Outlook that her heart was lifted when she saw her employees - many of whom she described as young and idealistic - working hard every day to help others improve their situation in life.

It also fulfilled her, she said, when she would meet former clients, such as women who got out of abusive relationships, who thanked her for her work on their behalf.

'I see that we have the opportunity and the tools to make this a better place,' she said.

'She's always been the cornerstone of our community,' Rubio said. 'I'm not so sure what it's going to look like now, but I do remember that she wanted us to continue working together. And that's what I'm going to do.'

Wiggins is survived by her husband, Joseph; a sister; and her parents.

Gresham Memorial Chapel is handling arrangements.