Betty Valdes still gets teary-eyed when she talks about the man who brought her his eviction notice and asked her what it meant. She chokes up when she remembers the young girl who rationed the donuts she gave her so that she would have enough for a weeks breakfast.
"I had to help them," Valdes said, as she remembers her time working as the first Hispanic, and Spanish-speaking, librarian for the Montgomery County Public Libraries.
While working at the Wheaton library, she would translate the English reference materials to Spanish and pushed for more translated materials to serve the growing Spanish-speaking population, many of whom were poor immigrants.
Valdes, who is a native Venezuelan, says it was then that she realized the desperate need among the minority communities to be educated on the issues that affect them.
As a part of this mission, she founded the Montgomery County Government Hispanic Employees' Association to promote compensation benefits for employees who provide their language expertise for county services.
During her tenure as the Hispanic Affairs Liason for the County Executive's Office, Valdes used her skills and connections within the community to promote multicultural and Hispanic community programs.
Feeling like she wanted to connect with the community even further, Valdes began to use the media as a tool to inform and educate the Hispanic and multicultural communities about services available to them.
"[The minorities] were missing the opportunity be become a part of the community," Valdes said. "I knew then as I know today that the Hispanic community is attached to Hispanic media."
She took her mission to the airwaves in 1988, hosting a weekly program on Radio Mundo, a Spanish-language radio station that offered her free airtime to speak her message. Soon, other Spanish-language stations requested she host similar programs for their stations.
In 1989, she started as host and producer of Que Pasa, an award-winning Spanish-language television program designed to educate the Hispanic community on the resources available to them. The show airs every Friday at 9:00 p.m. on Montgomery Municipal Cable Channel 16.
"Education is what saves human beings, ignorance is what keeps us down," Valdes said, when discussing the reasons for dedicating her life to educating minority communities. On her show, she has interviewed a variety of guests, from the Mexican consulate to local librarians.
Valdes has received many awards for her efforts including, most recently, the "Poder con Ganas" Award, translated as power with will.
Montgomery County Councilmember Nancy Navarro said she has always seen Valdes as a role model who "broke ground in the Latino community." According to Navarro, who has known Valdes since 1990, Valdes' work came at a time when there was no real intentional focus on services for the Latino community.
"So many people looked up to Betty because a very classy person, she was kind of like a diplomat," Navarro said. While Valdes' work has opened eyes to the needs of minority communities, Navarro and Valdes both say there is still a lot of work left to do.
"We still see disparities in the Latino community," Navarro said. "Program like [Valdes'] have really served to reform the community but I feel like we still have a long way to go."
Valdes also works as a mentor for young Hispanic women as well as volunteering as a coordinator at the Spanish Catholic Center, helping immigrants achieve their citizenship. In addition, she has serves as the president of the D.C. chapter of Reforma, a national organization that promotes the increased availability of information and library services for the Spanish-speaking and Latino community. She hopes her continued efforts will give the community a sense of hope. She challenges those around her to join in on the effort for an improved community.
"We need to work together for a better society," Valdes said. "But it is from the ground up."
Valdes will be inducted into the Human Rights Hall of Fame on Oct. 24 at Blackrock Center for the Arts.