Freeport’s education advocate

Jordan-Awalom, a voice for Latino parents

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Yes, Maria Jordan-Awalom is mom to Julian, 13, and Leah, 11, but she is also a second mother, in a sense, to hundreds of Freeport School District students.

Since she started volunteering at New Visions School in 2013, Jordan-Awalom has dedicated the last five years toward advocating for students and parents at the school. Because of her commitment to Freeport schools — and her many selfless, often unnoticed acts of kindness — Jordan-Awalom is the Freeport Herald-Leader Person of the Year for 2018.

On any given day, she might be running to soccer practice or Science Olympiad with her children, but she also might be speaking at a Board of Education meeting or volunteering at a school event.

Before Jordan-Awalom became a homemaker, she worked as a loan underwriter in the banking industry. She grew up in Jackson Heights, Queens, and moved to Freeport during her junior year of high school. She graduated from Freeport High School in 1992 and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Queens College.

Jordan-Awalom said she had not originally intended to stay home with her children and planned to return to her career. When Julian was at Columbus School, she started volunteering for a variety of events and chaperoning field trips there. The more she got involved, the more she noticed how relatively few parents volunteered in the schools.

In particular, the El Salvadoran native realized that a large number of Latino parents were not involved, and she took their absence as a call to action. “A lot of Spanish-speaking parents shared they felt like they couldn’t be involved,” Jordan-Awalom said.

She grew up in a home in which English was the second language, and her parents, she said, often felt disconnected from the school system because of the language barrier.

“I’ve always been the kind of person who advocates for the Hispanic community because my parents are from El Salvador and they don’t speak English,” Jordan-Awalom explained. “So I was always helping my family with the language or with anything.”

Realizing that many Spanish-speaking parents felt disassociated from the school system, she began to teach her fellow parents how to navigate the district and find ways that they too could get involved, even though they had not mastered the English language.

“Parental involvement makes such a huge difference,” Jordan-Awalom emphasized.

Over the years, Jordan-Awalom has become the Latino community’s point person. Many parents approach her with questions and concerns, and seek advice on how they should communicate with their children’s teachers. She is now president of the Freeport Public Schools Parent Teacher Association Council and is actively involved with the Freeport Education Foundation Committee.

“There are plenty of parents who stay home,” Jordan-Awalom shared. “And I wasn’t the only stay-at-home mom, but the priorities weren’t the same.”

Through her work with the PTA, Jordan-Awalom has increased parental involvement in the district, according to Dr. Alice Kane, Freeport’s assistant superintendent for educational and administrative services.

Jordan-Awalom started organizing events that other parents could take part in, including fundraisers, movie nights, meet-and-greets and community projects. Then she reached out to them to ensure that she knew about them.

“I started pushing more,” she said. “I’d tell them, ‘Let’s do this. Let’s have events.’ Maybe parents will come out. Let’s just do something different.”

She is now treasurer and vice president of the Caroline G. Atkinson Intermediate School PTA Council. In 2017-18, she was the J.W. Dodd Middle School PTA second vice president. In addition to her involvement with the PTA, Jordan-Awalom sits on a number of committees, including Health and Wellness, 21CCC Advisory and Latino Community Leaders. She has also served as a parent representative of the New Visions School’s site-based committee.

Outside of the district, she serves on the Nassau County Commissioners Council as chairwoman for Legislative District 5. In the community, she advocates for the Latino community by addressing its needs through meetings with state and local elected officials.

“Balancing all of those activities, you’re pretty much living in your car most weeknights,” Jordan-Awalom said with a laugh.

This year, during Hispanic Heritage Month from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, she was recognized as one of three Latino People of the Year by the Village of Freeport.

“She is a devoted Freeporter who truly has the best interests of the Freeport at heart, for her children and community,” Mayor Robert Kennedy said during the awards ceremony on Oct. 10.

At the start of the school year, New Visions School fourth-grader Taliyah Baptiste was diagnosed with diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, a rare tumor that forms at the base of the brain. Hearing about Baptiste’s illness, Jordan-Awalom rallied Freeport parents, school officials and community members to raise money to help pay Taliyah’s medical expenses. More than $15,000 has been raised to aid her family.

“She became the Baptistes’ strength,” Cindy Herrera, 44, said. “She’s modest, and she does this because she wants to do it.”

Herrera met Jordan-Awalom through Lisa Baptiste, and in the last two years, the two became good friends. Herrera said she is relieved that there are parents like Jordan-Awalom advocating for students while other parents are at work.

“It’s when we working parents get off work that we can connect with Maria and become aware of what’s happening at our children’s schools,” Herrera said. “She’s our voice and advocate. We need parents like her.”

Jordan-Awalom’s husband, Hiruy Awalom, 45, originally from Ethiopia and raised in Corona, Queens, said that he is amazed by his wife’s dedication to their children’s education, but also her commitment to helping other Freeport children.

Awalom said he still wonders how his wife manages to balance it all while now also working part-time at the Village of Freeport assessor’s office and running their children to extracurricular activities.

“It’s not about the trophies,” Awalom said. “This is all volunteer work, and what she’s doing is because she really cares.”