On a mission to help those in need

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Maria Corna speaks in soft, articulate tones. Her dark eyes suggest a back story of tremendous strength and courage. Maria Corna, who immigrated to the United States at the age of 8, is a survivor. Her mission is to help others survive – and thrive – on Columbus’ Westside.

Born in 1962, the youngest of four children, Corna thrived in her Bolivian homeland of Santa Cruz. Her potentially idyllic childhood was cut short when her mother unexpectedly died. Her father’s subsequent remarriage and relocation meant that care of the 22-month-old, as well as her older siblings, fell to Corna’s elderly grandmother.

Eventually, Corna’s aunt, Celia, requested special permission to adopt the young girl and take her to America. The prospect of a new home in a new country excited the now eight year old. “I liked my aunt,” explained Corna. “I was excited at the prospect of traveling with her.”

But excitement soon gave way to homesickness as stark reality set in.  “We settled in Los Angeles,” Corna recalled. “Two weeks after arriving, a big earthquake hit and I wanted to go home.  I started school with so much anxiety, so much fear.”

It was, initially, a lonely existence made harder by the complicated adjustment to a different culture. Corna still remembers the pain today. “We lived in an apartment and my aunt was very strict. She didn’t like me playing outside in such a big city so I usually played with dolls and made tea parties.” 

Circumstances weren’t much better at school. “I didn’t know the language so I was sent to ESL (English as a Second Language) classes as well as summer school. I didn’t have any friends, at first, because I didn’t know anybody. The other children made fun of me because I was different.”

Like many children of immigrants, Corna also assumed adult roles. “I had to interpret for my aunt at the bank or grocery store,” she explained. “She had a vision problem so I had to help her write out checks.”

Soon, however, Corna excelled in school and grew to love her new country. She studied hard, amazed by the liberties and opportunities, offered here in the United States. “I am against slavery so I like President Lincoln and all that he stood for,” she said. “I’m impressed by the women of America who’ve done so much to advance women’s rights.”

This deep love of country prompted an adult Corna to pursue dual citizenship and, along with her husband, Peter, raise their two daughters in central Ohio with an appreciation of who they are as United States citizens as well as where their family originally came from.

The girls, now young women, have both visited their South American relatives. Trips to the Ohio Historical Society to study genealogy also uncovered that Corna’s great-grandfather actually fought in this country’s Civil War.

Corna’s life experiences solidified the belief that we as human beings are all connected. She openly admits that she has greater compassion for immigrants, no matter what their culture or background.  This is the reason she works to assist new immigrants adjust to life in the United States.  “I feel like I need to help new immigrants,” she explained. “It just feels right because I understand what it’s like to be an immigrant. I know what it’s like to be in unfamiliar surroundings.”

“On Monday nights, I have helped tutor adults in a program sponsored by Northwest Chapel Grace Brethren near Avery Road. It’s run by pastor Philip Guerena,” she said. 

Corna also promotes understanding through her work at the Westland Area Library. She came to the library in May, 1998 as a youth services assistant and a circulation clerk. The dual role allows her to assist the Westside’s Spanish as well as English speaking population. It’s also enabled Corna to facilitate, “Lee Con Nosotros!” or “Come Read With Us!”  This is a family story time which runs through the school year. Stories are read in both Spanish and English. 

Additionally, Corna has represented the library during National Library Week at Prairie Lincoln Elementary School and has tutored at the school through a grant called, “Ohio Reads.” 

As Columbus and its Westside continues to adjust to a rich mix of diverse cultures, Corna offered these thoughts, “This is my home. The sooner we can merge the cultures the better so that our children can grow up accepting one another.”

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