Jefferson Awards: Keila Pena helps support migrants in Rochester

Jefferson Awards: Keila Pena helps support migrants in Rochester

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. — For months News10NBC has been reporting on migrants who have made Rochester their home — many of them are fleeing dire circumstances in search of a better life.

Emily Putnam spoke with ESL Jefferson Award winner, Keila Pena, who started the only organization in our area fully dedicated to getting migrants the papers they need to turn their American dream into reality.

Growing up, Keila Pena split her time between the Dominican Republic and New York City.

“My mom was non-documented immigrant for a very long time ’til she was able to get her papers herself, and we struggled a lot,” explains Keila.

The first in her family to graduate college, Keila now dedicates countless hours a week to helping families in similar circumstances.

“They can relate. I can relate to them. They relate to me,” she says. “I’ve seen what can happen and how different your life could be if you have the legal status to pursue that American dream.”

With support from her husband and three children, Keila founded a nonprofit called Succor. The name comes from the Spanish “succorro” – meaning “help.” Keila told Emily some of her clients escape to Rochester from horrific circumstances like abuse, violence, and persecution in their home countries.

“They’re just regular people that were in very dire situations, and they see America as this great place where anything is possible,” she explains.

Succor is, essentially, a second full-time job for Keila. It’s funded through donations from the community, grants, and gifts from businesses, like ESL.

“ESL is what took Succor to a whole new level, and eternally grateful for them doing that,” Keila says. “We got $25,000 last year.”

Succor has a home at Hope Church in Greece, where Keila’s clients can come for community, guidance, and even groceries. While the nonprofit is focused on getting migrants the documents and resources they need to succeed, sometimes the scope of Keila’s work goes beyond documentation.   

“I meet their children. I meet their moms. I meet their families. We laugh together. We cry together. We get frustrated together,” tells Keila.

Right now, Succor has more than 100 active clients and about 50 more on the waitlist.

“I think everyone is overwhelmed with the amount of requests and solicitation for help.” she says. “The demand has just spiked exponentially because of the amount of people that are coming in.”

Keila is in the process of getting full certification with the Department of Justice so she can represent her clients in immigration court. Her work with Succor is fueled by a passion for paying it forward, and creating a brighter future for families.

“It’s work that is priceless, because you are really impacting the life of generations to come,” says Keila.