Photo of Carolina Padilla from Today's Omaha Woman magazine.

Carolina Padilla

Caring for Immigrant and Refugee Seniors

By Kara Schweiss
Photo provided by Intercultural Senior Center

Seniors in the community, particularly immigrant and refugee seniors, may spend what should be their golden years isolated by poverty, language barriers, cultural differences or transportation challenges. Recognizing that these seniors often need resources like health care, mental health care, education or legal services, Carolina Padilla founded the nonprofit Intercultural Senior Center in 2009.

Her establishing vision for the Intercultural Senior Center (ISC) was to enhance the dignity, quality of life and well-being of seniors from around the world. Initially, the organization primarily served women in Omaha’s Latino community. Today it serves a diverse group of men and women ages 50 and over through advocacy, education, access to social services, and cultural enrichment activities. Clients hail from around the world and ISC has staff members who speak Arabic, Burmese, Dari, English, Karen, Karenni, Nepali, Swahili, Spanish and Pashto.

In 2021, ISC became the first in Nebraska to earn accreditation from the National Council on Aging’s National Institute on Senior Centers and is one of about 200 accredited senior centers across the country. “I have dedicated my life to help others,” Padilla says, adding that her work also respects the contributions ISC’s clients have made, and continue to make. “The senior population is still part of the community; it is not invisible.”

ISC’s story reflects Padilla’s personal story to some degree. She certainly understands what it’s like to be in a new country and immersed in a new culture. She attended high school in California while living at a relative’s home, a long way from the family coffee farm in Guatemala, where she grew up. During a later time of strife in her home country, Padilla and her husband and children relocated to Omaha, where her husband had family connections.

She transitioned from being an entrepreneur in Guatemala (running a bakery business that also distributed eggs to grocery stores) to working in the nonprofit sector in the U.S.

She knows how it feels to be isolated from family, having emigrated during an era when international communication meant letters and, occasionally, expensive long-distance calls. “You had to have your watch in your hand,” she says. “Today, it’s much easier… I have not lost connection with my family back home; that is important for me… as a Latina, we’re very family-oriented.” Family figures into ISC’s story, too. “My mom died when I was 6 years old, and I stayed with my dad,” she says. “My mom was one of five sisters. They were still in a small town after my mom passed; they kind of took care of me. I left home, you know, I came to the United States and I went back to Guatemala City to go to college. But I never felt like I gave back to my aunts what they deserved. As they aged, I would visit when I could. I always felt a special attachment.”

Padilla says she had a deep appreciation for her aunts and through them first gained perspective on how people, especially women, were impacted and challenged by aging. Now her own children are adults, and she’s a grandmother of two.

“It’s hard to age when you have language barriers, or income or education barriers,” she says. “I worked for 12 years at OneWorld Community Health Centers. I saw people age (and) that really touched me. I always wanted to help that 50 to 60-year old person who came to OneWorld: What do they need? Do they have this, do they have that? Do they have a doctor?” In 2006, Padilla left her administrative job at OneWorld for a director position with Catholic Charities of Omaha’s Latina Resource Center Program. During that time, a friend sought assistance and companionship for her aging mother, who was losing her sight and becoming isolated. Through her work, Padilla learned of other older women, usually mothers of the women she was serving through the Latina Resource Center, who were also in need of social interaction and community.

“It was an amazing opportunity to see how those grandmas loved to meet, to get to know each other,” Padilla says. “I think it made me realize this is what I need to do, I really need to help seniors to socialize, to get together, to feel like someone cares for them.”

In 2009, she founded ISC to welcome older adults to learn, grow and laugh together. ISC continues that mission today with culturally appropriate, high-quality services and programs. ISC is primarily a community center that provides on-site nutrition support, education, exercise and social activities, and cultural events. Clients are provided with a light breakfast and noon meal through the Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging (ENOA). Although the center requests a goodwill donation for meals, no membership or activity fees are assessed. In 2019, ISC moved to its current location at 5545 Center St., providing van transportation to the center so any local senior can enjoy its activities. ISC also helps coordinate case management and food pantry delivery as needed for the individuals it serves.

The recent pandemic exacerbated everyday challenges for older adults, Padilla says. With the 60-plus population identified as particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, in-person activities had to be curtailed as social distancing and protective isolation became the norm. ISC responded by providing food delivery and other essential items to seniors, but also by connecting with clients through regular phone calls and online activities. Clients and staff have an even greater appreciation for the benefits of social interaction now that in-person activities have resumed, Padilla says, and there’s work ahead as the organization continues to evolve. She’s taken a special interest in advocating for more affordable housing for seniors and better access to mental health care.

“I’m not saying the ISC is the savior for everything,” she says. “We want to make sure that it, first of all, welcomes everybody who needs it. It’s about how you feel. A person of age can be there with dignity, in a place they can be taken care of.”

That approach continues to make ISC a happy place for not just its clients, but also for Padilla herself.

“I love music, I love to exercise. I like to read. I like to meet people, I love to have friends and I like to have fun,” Padilla says. “I don’t see this just as a job. Of course, it’s my responsibility. But I think that deep in my heart, this is really what I care for. I see from the outside what the needs are. I love to be around people in who they are, where they come from, and how much they have accomplished.”