Hispanic Alliance of Southeastern Connecticut welcomes new executive director to continue founder’s legacy
New London— Since 2000, the Hispanic Alliance of Southeastern Connecticut has mainly known one executive director and that’s its founder, Alejandro Melendez-Cooper.
After his death in November of last year, Mirna Martinez and Melendez-Cooper’s son Claudio served as interim co-directors. Then Claudio Melendez-Cooper took over as interim executive director and took on the hard task of finding a replacement for his father, someone qualified with a connection to the community.
Melendez-Cooper, believing he found that someone, hired Lina Agudelo, 42, a former social worker and active member in the community. Last week, Agudelo started her role as the not-for-profit’s new executive director.
Agudelo said the organization — which aims to advance Hispanic contributions in the Southeastern Connecticut community — is very dear to her family.
Agudelo remembers immigrating to the city from Colombia with her family in 1999 and not knowing anyone. One of the first people they met was Alejandro Melendez-Cooper, at a local restaurant. They were able to interact in Spanish, and her parents told him they wanted to start a business. From that moment, Agudelo said Alejandro gave his help unconditionally and guided them into starting a business, calling him a great mentor.
With his help, Agudelo’s family was able to start a restaurant on Bank Street for a couple of years.
“That's what the alliance does, provides mentoring,” Agudelo said.
She said it’s a place where if someone has a question they can come to the Hispanic Alliance, and the organization, using its network, can refer people to agencies and resources.
“Dad’s work, that energy and vision, is all being passed down to Lina, someone I know who can do it and wants to do it,” Melendez-Cooper said.
Maria Amparo Cruz-Saco, an economics professor at Connecticut College, said her late husband built “an amazing concept with a strategic vision” that did not exist in the community when he founded the alliance.
“Lina interacted with Alejandro and he knew that Lina was an emerging leader as well,” Cruz-Saco said. “I believe that Lina will imprint direction and lead the organization in this changing demographics and socioeconomic post-pandemic context that is presenting new challenges and opportunities to our community.”
Previous to this position, Agudelo worked for Safe Future for four years, starting as an advocate and working her way up to a housing coordinator. In recent years, Agudelo has returned to school to study sociology at Three Rivers Community College and plans on transferring to another local four-year university.
Agudelo said she hopes to continue and further develop the alliance’s current programs.
The alliance offers a scholarship program with 320 recipients since 2002. Cruz-Saco said many of the recipients are presently professionals, such as physicians and teachers. They also have La Latina network and BRILLA, two programs that empower young Latinas through mentoring, leadership courses and scholarships.
Melendez-Cooper said they provide the organization’s programs and services free of charge to those in the community, regardless of their immigration status.
Using COVID-19 relief funds, the alliance started an emergency relief program called AYUDA in 2020 to provide one-time assistance to people with medical bills or rent until they are connected to another organization. Melendez-Cooper said they have helped about 800 individuals this year.
Agudelo said her vision is to continue promoting the Hispanic community and open possibilities to support it.
In May, the Hispanic Alliance entered into a partnership with Eastern Connecticut State University to match $2,500 annual scholarships granted by the organization. Cruz-Saco said they are hoping to create a cohort of Hispanic Alliance graduates.
The Southeastern Connecticut Cultural Coalition awarded the Chestnut Street Playhouse and Hispanic Alliance a $11,000 grant in June to start a bilingual summer theater program based in Norwich for high school students. Melendez-Cooper said that endeavor started with Alejandro Melendez-Cooper making connections with those at the Garde Arts Center.
He added the organization is also looking to start a summer youth enrichment program for younger children.
Agudelo, passionate about her new role, said she comes to add to Alejandro Melendez-Cooper’s legacy, a legacy she called “untouchable.”
Editor’s note: this article has been updated to recognize Mirna Martinez as co-director.