“Estoy aquí para ti.”
“I am here for you.”
Ilsi Palacios embodies those words of assurance to Spanish-speaking people in need throughout the Jefferson City diocese.
She is the Hispanic Resource Coordinator for Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri (CCCNMO).
Headquartered at the agency’s Hispanic Resource Office in Sedalia, she serves as a point of contact, a purveyor of assistance and an ambassador for Christ and His Church.
“With any need people of the Hispanic community are facing, I am here to help,” she said.
Hispanics are among the people who are disproportionately affected by COVID-19, chronic poverty and other issues.
They also often face linguistic and eligibility barriers to accessing services.
The coronavirus pandemic highlighted for Catholic Charities the need to eliminate barriers to serving the Hispanic community.
“That’s the main reason they decided to hire me,” said Mrs. Palacios, a member of St. Vincent de Paul Parish of Pettis County. “They recognized a lot of need in the various Hispanic communities, but there wasn’t anyone available at Catholic Charities who speaks Spanish and understands the Hispanic communities’ needs.”
Made for this
Mrs. Palacios was born in El Salvador and moved to Marshall with her parents when she was in high school.
She holds degrees in psychology and education with an emphasis in teaching Spanish.
She moved to Sedalia in 2010, when Dr. Mark Register encouraged her to join the Sacred Heart School faculty.
She taught Spanish there for 10 years, all the while taking care of her four children and serving as Hispanic coordinator of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal in the diocese.
Through moments of prayer, she began to realize that God was calling her to do more for the community and for His Church.
“After school, I would receive calls from people in the Hispanic community, even people who didn’t know me, but they were looking for guidance,” she said. “They wanted to talk to someone about what they were going through.”
One day, she was listening to a woman who was in shock over a traumatic experience.
“I prayed with her,” said Mrs. Palacios. “We started praying, praying, praying.”
In a moment of silence and peace, a clear message came to her mind.
“I truly believe it was God talking to me,” she recalled. “The phrase was, ‘You were born to do this. I made you to do this!’”
Shortly thereafter, she found out about the new position at Catholic Charities and applied for it.
Abundance of need
Mrs. Palacios hears from people all over the diocese.
“With COVID-19, I receive many, many calls for assistance,” she said. “They are looking for help on rent or utilities.”
Others needs help finding housing or advice on legal, immigration or medical concerns.
Sometimes, they just need to talk about what they’re going through.
“There’s a lot of listening from my side,” she said.
What can be very difficult at times is trying to help people find housing while they’re still working out their immigration status.
The shortage of rental housing in and around Jefferson City, exacerbated by the tornado, has made it all the more difficult.
“They need a good credit score, they need a Social Security number, they need a decent income,” she said. “And some people don’t have that.”
She brings more than her credentials to the table.
“My roots are Salvadorian,” she said. “El Salvador went through a disastrous, 12-year civil war.”
She understands the stories of the many who have fled violence and poverty in search of opportunities for a better life for them and their families.
“My role is to help them and give the guidance they need to overcome obstacles and have a better quality of life,” she said.
That often includes helping them connect with a faith community, “where they feel safe, where they feel welcome, where they can also serve the Church and help provide support to the whole community.”
Catholic Charities worked with Fathers David Veit and Joseph Corel, pastors in solidum of St. Vincent de Paul Parish of Pettis County, to establish Catholic Charities’ Hispanic Resource Office in Sedalia.
“They’ve both been so great for us,” said Mrs. Palacios. “We’re very grateful for them.”
Her office is in the Sacred Heart Parish Center, which is connected to the chapel and a short distance from Sacred Heart School.
It’s also close to where many of her clients live.
“There is a great need within this area,” she said. “The Hispanic population is large around here. And we are close to Marshall and to California, which have significant Hispanic populations, as well.”
She’s looking forward to visiting with clients face-to-face, but she now must work exclusively by phone due to the pandemic.
“I’m getting a lot of calls!” she said. “Every day at the end of the day, I have to charge the phone. It’s busy!”
All who are burdened
Her duties include case management for Spanish-speaking clients of Catholic Charities’ disaster assistance program.
“I’m currently working with two different families,” she said. “One of them came to us when they found out that someone speaks Spanish in Catholic Charities.”
They called in September 2020 — a year and four months after the tornado turned their lives upside-down.
“They tried to find assistance everywhere else but couldn’t, so we are assisting,” said Mrs. Palacios.
Many are surprised to learn that they don’t have to be Catholic to receive services from Catholic Charities.
She tells them, “This service is for you! The Catholic Church, our services are open to everyone, and you are welcome here.”
The agency’s goal for all of its services is to decrease barriers to access, increase self-sufficiency, and promote physical and emotional wellness.
This involves guiding victims of natural disasters through the labyrinthine process of securing a safe, secure, sanitary place to live.
Using resources from Catholic Charities and other agencies, she helps them through the process of getting their damaged homes rebuilt or finding a new place to live.
She’ll also work with parishes that have Spanish-speaking populations to prepare for disasters before they happen — what to do ahead of time, during and after a cataclysmic event.
Mrs. Palacios is also working with Deacon Enrique Castro, diocesan director of intercultural and marriage ministries, on an online counseling service.
It is a partnership between parishes, the diocese, Catholic Charities and a group of licensed, culturally knowledgeable, Spanish-speaking counselors in the nation of Colombia who meet with clients over livestream.
Parishes provide a secure space and schedule the online appointments. Catholic Charities provides the equipment and administrative oversight.
“It’s very exciting,” said Mrs. Palacios. “I’m looking forward to combining my psychology degree with bringing people closer to God and seeing people healing from so many wounds that they are carrying.”
Hope in God
She makes a point of helping her clients recognize God’s presence, even in the middle of their difficulties.
“One of my favorite phrases to tell people is, ‘Christ is our hope’ — that they are not alone, that the Church is walking with them,” she said.
The word “we” is essential.
“I speak in the plural,” she said. “Not ‘you,’ as in ‘you will do it,’ but in terms of ‘we.’ This is OUR process, our battle, and we are going to get through it together.”
After listening to a client’s story, and knowing they have become comfortable talking to her, she asks if she may pray with them.
“Most of the time, they are willing to do that,” she said.
The Holy Spirit makes Himself known in that moment.
“It’s amazing how someone’s body language and mood will change with the prayer,” she said, “because they regain their spiritual strength, and they regain hope.”
“That reassurance that they are not alone,” she said. “For someone suffering from COVID-19 or a job loss, just having that conversation over the phone and praying — it helps them feel better, it helps them have hope.”
Mrs. Palacios recharges her own batteries with a daily regimen of prayer — including time in Adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament.
“I think it’s beautiful that God has placed me in this building where I can go downstairs and pray,” she said.
“I go wherever the Holy Spirit takes me with it,” she said. “I mention the names of each of my families that I will be working with and that I have concerns about, and that the Lord can open doors and provide what they need.”
She asks for people to join her in praying for strength to do God’s will and the ability to open more doors to the people she’s been sent to help.
She believes everyone can assist with this important work by simply being good neighbors.
“Get involved in your community,” she suggested. “If you see someone who looks different, the first thing you can do is smile. They might not recognize it right away if you’re wearing a mask, but even our body language tells people if we are open, if we are welcoming.
“My invitation to all is: Let’s be people of hope!” she said.