Warm Welcome

A model mid-cities immigrant education program takes hold

Then, there is the Sudanese family that now has a home, clothing and jobs, thanks to the center and its charitable connections. And the story of the 17-year-old Mexican national who worked nights to support his family, then routinely fell asleep during the daytime English classes in which he'd enrolled. "Finally," says Paliotta, "I called him aside and told him to come straight to my office after work each morning. I gave him a blanket and pillow and told him to take a short nap on my floor before going to class."

At the Welcome Center, you do what you have to do.

Help, she acknowledges, comes from myriad benefactors in the community. The PTA donates school supplies for the immigrant children, and a "summer Santa" program organized by members of the Federal Aviation Administration at nearby D-FW International Airport annually finances shopping trips for school clothing. If it is medical attention, legal help or a job that is needed, Paliotta has numbers to call. "Our network of charities has been a godsend," she says. Area hotels, fast-food restaurants and the airlines now contact her when in search of workers. Many parents of immigrant students work in the cafeterias of schools their children attend.

Acela Hernandez Paliotta runs the Welcome Center in the H-E-B school district that helps immigrant children and adults coming into the school district.
Mark Graham
Acela Hernandez Paliotta runs the Welcome Center in the H-E-B school district that helps immigrant children and adults coming into the school district.

She smiles as she recalls a conversation with three Bulgarian youngsters during last year's Christmas season. "One of our charities had asked that we find out what each child would like as a present. They, of course, were talking of toys. When I asked these kids, however, they each had the same wish--a bed so they would no longer have to sleep on the floor." Happy ending: They got not one bed, but three. And a toy each.

When, in the wake of the World Trade Center attack, a Muslim father came to the Welcome Center, worried that his children might become the target of some form of retribution from classmates, his concerns were quickly eliminated. "From experience, we were able to assure him that as a part of the Welcome Center family they would not be treated badly," Reyes says. "And they weren't."

By all measure, the H-E-B school district's Welcome Center would seem to be a galloping success. So much so that officials from other school districts now visit to observe as they contemplate plans for similar programs in their communities. That is one of the reasons Paliotta will retire at the end of this month from the job she, in effect, created and become a consultant to other schools planning improvement of their services to newly arrived immigrant students and their families.

"Acela has been the heart and soul of this place, the passion behind it," Reyes says. "She taught us how to recognize and understand people's needs and to work as a team to see those needs are met. She's made sure that we know how to carry on."

"I know I will miss it terribly," Paliotta says, "but it is time."

Why? For all the recollections of smiling young faces, the appreciative hugs and handshakes and the personal satisfaction the job has afforded her, there is a dark memory she seldom speaks of but is still trying to escape. On a March evening in 2001, Armond Paliotta, her husband of 22 years and a man who championed her efforts to make the Welcome Center a reality, was murdered during a robbery at an Arlington men's clothing store he managed. The man convicted of firing the fatal shot was a 23-year-old Honduras native named Heilberto Chi, a man her husband had given a job.

And so she hopes that a change, a new career direction, might dim the memory of that tragedy. Friends like Diane Reyes are betting it will. New beginnings, after all, are what Acela Paliotta does best.

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