Hispanic Heritage Month: Passing the torch of community involvement

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Mercedes Vazquez Simmons is a Monroe County legislator with a long, long history of community activism and involvement. At only 17 years old, her mentee Olivia Bernier seems to be following in her footsteps.

“I’ve known her for her entire life; her father and I were very good friends,” Vazquez Simmons said. “Just to see her grow up has been beautiful, just to see her develop as a young lady.”

This past year, Bernier started volunteering at the Latino Youth Development Center (LYDC), which Vazquez Simmons founded in 2020.

“The center was created to provide young people a space where they can call their own,” she said. “This is a judgement-free zone where we allow them to have conversations that are about them.”

The North Clinton Avenue neighborhood where the center is located is home to many in the Latino community. It’s also one of the deadliest neighborhoods.

“This is high crime area, I think this corridor is the corridor with the highest amount of shootings,” Vazquez Simmons said.  “So they’re dealing with this on a daily basis. We can’t normalize crime […] There’s a shooting, it’s a normal day. So we talk about what happens, what happens in these communities.”

Bernier can relate to the loss – she lost her mother at five years old.

“Ever since, my dad has been my best friend — he’s my biggest motivator, my biggest supporter,” Bernier said.

Vazquez Simmons says that Bernier’s background is part of what helps her relate to the young people she works with at the center.

“I admire her tenacity, her will to just want to better herself on a daily basis,” Vazquez Simmons said.

As an intern, Bernier helps out with many LYDC events, most recently for Hispanic Heritage Month. She’s also made her way down to the county building with Vazquez Simmons, to get up close and personal with local legislation. 

Olivia Bernier sometimes accompanies her mentor, Monroe County legislator Mercedes Vazquez Simmons, to the county building to get acquainted with local legislation. (Photo: WHEC/Hailie Higgins)

“We’re the second largest […] Latino population outside of New York City,” Vazquez-Simmons said. “And should our government reflect that? I think so.”

Bernier agrees.

“I think its important that we come up and we’re able to better ourselves and just bring awareness to who we are and what we stand for,” she said.

With college on the way, Bernier said she’s excited to study psychology and eventually head to med school – and maybe end up in local government. Wherever she ends up, she said she wants to continue to better herself and the folks around her – especially those in the Hispanic community.

“It’s your people,” she said. “You feel a strong connection to this community even if they’re not Puerto Rican or if I don’t know them personally, you know? We all share a common theme and I think that’s in every Latino — you want to help your people and you want to see them succeed even if it doesn’t benefit you directly.”

It’s something she said that Vazquez Simmons has helped her learn.

“[Working under Vasquez Simmons] is a great opportunity for me, not only for the exposure I can get or what I can do for myself but what I can do for other people,” Bernier said.