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May 29, 2015 | Ivan Davila

Personal Experience, Passion Inform Ministry to Austin Latinos

[Diolog Magazine] Iliana Gilman, executive director of El Buen Samaritano, Austin, has used her personal life experience and background in strategy and public policy to bring new life to the legacy of Bishop Maurice “Ben” Benitez since joining the organization exactly one year ago. El Buen is a diocesan outreach ministry to Latinos.


An Austin transplant from Laredo, Texas, Gilman struggled with the same environmental and social barriers El Buen’s clients face every day and relates to them with a deep sense of responsibility.


“After my parents divorced when I was two, it was my grandmother, a Mexican immigrant, who raised me in a Spanish-speaking household,” Gilman said. “We learned English together by watching Sesame Street.” Gilman often refers to her grandmother as the love of her life who taught her the most important life lessons—being kind, loving and responsible—and says she aspires to that every day.


When her mother remarried, Gilman became the oldest of five sisters. She moved in with the new family after middle school, and as is often the case in many families sharing her cultural background, she was expected to help with the household chores and raising her younger siblings. “It was my obligation to stay home and help, so when it came time to leave for college, I felt I was turning my back on my own family. It was awful,” Gilman said.


Educational success didn’t come easy to Gilman, who often lacked financial and emotional support. “There were times when I was hungry and unmotivated … ready to quit. But I took my education seriously and did what I needed—worked full time, took out loans and worked extra hard to get through. Experiencing poverty and domestic violence had an inescapable influence on my priorities,” Gilman said. She was determined to be self-reliant. She persevered and ultimately received her master’s in media studies from The New School University in New York City.


Shortly thereafter, she joined Austin Travis County Integral Care, the largest provider of mental health care in Travis County, where she would later become chief strategy officer. Gilman came to learn from her combined personal and work experience that mental health is inseparable from physical health. “I do believe it was divine intervention that brought me to El Buen. It was difficult to witness the barriers my grandmother faced accessing critical health and social services. Now I have an opportunity to help remove those barriers for other families,” Gilman said. “I am honored to serve in this capacity for the only faith-based safety net provider improving the health and quality of life of Latino immigrants in Central Texas.”


El Buen has seen many transitions since its foundation in 1987—staying true to its mission of empowering Latino families. Access to health care has been a glaring issue for Latinos, especially in Travis County, where 57 percent of the uninsured population is Latino.


Shortly after Gilman joined the staff on April 1, 2014, the organization began exploring national models and best practices that would leverage El Buen’s existing services. Supported by institutions like the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, research proved that 80 percent of an individual’s health begins with their environment at home, school and work. “Our innovation comes from being one of the few safety net providers in the country that offers a comprehensive array of family supports such as spiritual support, adult and youth education and food assistance,” Gilman said.


El Buen is growing and transforming to ensure it will continue to provide quality, comprehensive care for families for many years ahead. It is a blessed place that inspires anyone whose life it touches. “The opportunities ahead are countless. We look forward to becoming a model example for other health care providers and encourage people to learn more about us,” Gilman said.


Dávila is director of communication and community engagement for El Buen Samaritano.


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