Advocate for minorities, less fortunate in Freeborn County to retire

Published 10:01 am Thursday, April 27, 2023

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Linda Cruz Lares, social worker and volunteer, is retiring this year after over 40 years in public service, though not without leaving an indelible impression in the area.

You only have to ask those she’s worked with and it becomes clear what she means to the area.

Collette Turcotte was the executive director of Freeborn County Community Action Agency and worked with her for two decades fighting poverty.

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Working with Cruz Lares, someone she described as a friend, Turcotte said she was dedicated to helping families realize their dreams while simultaneously moving away from poverty.

It wasn’t just clients she helped either.

“She helped me understand [the] culture of people from Spanish-speaking countries and then moving to our county,” Turcotte said.

During Cruz Lares’ time, Turcotte said more Spanish speakers visited the agency, and to help with the language barrier, staff learned “social worker Spanish” to communicate phrases to convey to visitors for when Cruz Lares was out of the office.

“She has been a central Hispanic figure in Freeborn County for many, many years,” she said.

Erin Haag, executive director of the United Way of Freeborn County, met Cruz Lares after she started working at her position in 2019.

“One of the hallmarks about Linda is that she brings a lot of joy to whatever she’s doing,” she said. “One of her trademarks, she always goes the extra mile to make sure that people feel welcome, whether or not she’s working with a client, if she’s helping run the homeless response team meeting.”

And that extra care, whether bringing in treats or making coffee, left an impact on her.

Haag described Cruz Lares as bringing joy to everything, something people responded well to professionally and personally.

She also said she thought Cruz Lares’ work was critical, especially the bilingual connection to ensure organizations were able to reach all Freeborn County populations.

“Linda has been an institution of social services in Freeborn County,” Haag said.

Cruz Lares currently works at SEMCAC — which formerly stood for Southeastern Minnesota Community Action Council. SEMCAC serves Freeborn and six other counties to the east of

Albert Lea all the way to the Wisconsin border. She works as an emergency case manager, and her work includes helping the homeless and those losing their housing. She does that through the Family Homeless Prevention program.

Besides that, she’s the only person working within the Energy Assistance Program, helping people with utility bills.

“That would be their gas bill, which in most cases is their heating source, Freeborn Mower Electric Company for their electricity and their water bill for the city of Albert Lea,” she said.

Over the years, SEMCAC has put an emphasis on homelessness and trying to prevent it. Prior to and during the pandemic, Community Action was proactive and not reactive.

When she explains to the average person what she does, Cruz Lares wants them to know they’re an extended support system within the area that assists individuals, families and households and helps them to be aware of or strengthen support systems.

“That could be the United Way, Salvation Army, it could be the foundations that are in the community that support many of our programs, it could be churches — local churches — that have a commitment to assist families in need,” she said. “I look at it as SEMCAC being a very strong partner and collaborative and networker to bring people together, services and resources.”

Cruz Lares admitted the community was good at assisting those in need, while at the same time realizing some individuals and families were not aware of programs and services.

Those programs include the Federal Emergency Management Agency, something Cruz Lares was the lead coordinator for and worked at for 15 years. The program receives federal money, which was designated to local food pantries and the hot meal program.

Because she’s bilingual in Spanish, Cruz Lares also worked for interpretative services with the Freeborn County Department of Human Services, and she’ll do interpreting work for the city of Albert Lea.

“I used to do a lot more for the police department, but they have a few bilingual staff now,” she said.

Cruz Lares has served on a selection committee for three local judges: Steve Schwab, Kevin Siefken and Ross Leuning.

She is also a facilitator for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, where she holds quarterly panels, and she’s a board member for the Freeborn County Communities Foundation and designates legacy funds. She contributes to grant requests, and is on the board for Mayo Health Systems — Albert Lea and Austin.

She is a trustee for St. Theodore’s Catholic Church, and she volunteers for Time, Talent and Treasure, a group that fundraises in order to send six fourth-grade girls from the elementary schools in Albert Lea, Alden and Glenville to a free week of camp, adding that selected girls may not have otherwise had the opportunity to go. Not only do they provide tuition, they also provide everything they would otherwise need, including a sleeping bag, clothes, swimsuits, towels, shoes, pajamas and everything else. After their week of camp, the girls keep everything.

She has been a member of the Rotary Club for over 15 years, serving twice as president, and served on the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation for two terms.

And she worked on Martin Luther King Jr. Day events for Turcotte, the first director of Community Action that covered Freeborn County.

“She and a group of folks said, ‘You know, it’s a federal holiday, we celebrate but we really don’t do anything,’” she sad. “‘It isn’t day off, it’s a day on and we need to have more community spirit about involvement.’”

What started at the YMCA moved to First Lutheran church and is now at Riverland Community College. She was involved in the MLK event planning for 34 years.

Speaking of YMCA, she served on the board there for 20 years.

But it was her time on the board at the Albert Lea Child Care Center that stuck out to her.

“There weren’t a lot of diverse toys or books at that time, and I’m talking 30 years ago,” she said.

Because she encourages and educates people on cultural diversity, particularly communities of color and communities with special needs, she’s proud to be a resource and provide education not just for nonprofits but for anyone interested.

To that effect, she worked as part of the Albert Lea-Freeborn County Leadership Project, which educated representatives from different companies about different facets of the area, whether agriculture, the city or the county. It was her job to help gather and organize speakers from the Islamic, Native American, Asian and Spanish-speaking communities, something she did for roughly a decade.

Cruz Lares has worked with SEMCAC since 2004 after Freeborn County Community Action closed. Prior to closing, she worked with Freeborn County Community Action for almost a quarter century. She started her career with Freeborn County Community Action working with immigrant individuals and families who came to Minnesota, a role she served for three years.

“These families and individuals will come and they would live in a camp that was designated by the company that brought them for seasonal farm labor,” she said. “I worked with the families, I worked with parents and children.”

Growing up in a Spanish-speaking family, she credited her mother for being a role model, and described her father as a hard-worker.

“What I learned from them was their generosity, their empathy for anyone coming through the community,” she said, adding that there was always food for travelers, as well as assistance. Her parents also believed in sharing and giving back.

And instilling the idea of helping whenever it was needed made the idea of working in that type of field a natural fit, especially because she wanted to work with entire families.

Cruz Lares said she is not certain when she’ll retire, but does plan to do so this year.

“I’ve had a lot of life experiences throughout my childhood and my adult [career], but being able to work with an individual or family to maintain their safe housing, to be nourished not only physically but also having the networking and the collaboration with so many wonderful helping agencies in our community, that’s what it means to empower and that’s what it means to build self-sufficiency,” she said.

To her, her greatest accomplishment isn’t professional though, it was being a grandmother to six children. And while she’s not certain what she’ll do, she does plan to give back to her church. She said she has been blessed to have a family that is so supportive.