The Isabel Villar Story. Renaissance Woman. Cuban Immigrant 1966, Founder of El Centro Hispano pioneered immigrant acceptance, progress in Westchester: A White Plains Shining Light

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WPCNR SHINING LIGHTS. Obituary from McMahon,Lyon & Hartnett Funeral Home. August 1, 2023:

Isabel Elsa Villar…

Founding Executive Director of El Centro Hispano in White Plains and a retired guidance counselor in the Norwalk, CT, school system, passed away July 12, 2023 after battling ovarian cancer for the last 15 years at the age of 74.

Born on September 23, 1948 in Cuba, she resided in White Plains for last 57 years.

Isabel immigrated to the US with her family in 1966.

Upon enrolling soon thereafter at White Plains High School, she was immediately sensitized to the problems newcomers to this country face because of the language barrier and cultural differences. Her experiences in those early years were instrumental in shaping her future vocation, her calling in life.

After receiving her B.A. in Political Science/Latin American Studies from Manhattanville College, Isabel was hired in 1972 as a bilingual middle school teacher in Norwalk, CT. In 1978 she began teaching American History, ESOL and Spanish at Brien McMahon High School.

During those years she earned three master’s degrees, from New York University, Iona College, and Long Island University as well as her license in counseling. In 1988 Isabel became a guidance counselor at Brien McMahon and a decade later founded the Brien McMahon High School Hispanic Alumni Association with the mission of having Hispanic alumni serve as role models and mentors for current students.

A devoted educator and counselor, Isabel herself was an extraordinary role model who earned the gratitude of so many students who understood that she had once walked in their shoes.

In spite of a demanding full-time job in education, Isabel wanted to do even more to help those newly arrived in this country. In 1974 she co-founded El Centro Hispano in White Plains, New York.

This community organization offers a variety of programs to Hispanic residents of White Plains and Westchester County. The programs currently offered by El Centro Hispano are changing the lives of their clients through education, technology, support services, cultural events, outreach, counseling and empowerment, and through special activities.

They include but are not limited to English as a Second Language; High School Equivalency Prep; Citizenship classes; all levels of computer classes for adults, tutorial services for children in k-12; scholarships for graduating high school students; a stipend program for college and high school students tutoring children in all our educational programs; educational and informational workshops; semimonthly food distribution; legal and Affordable Care Program assistance; free health services, as well as translation services and assistance in finding housing and looking for employment.

These programs educate and inform the immigrant community about how to exercise their rights in this country and prepare them to succeed and make a better future for themselves and their children.

From its inception in 1974 El Centro Hispano was housed at St. Bernard’s Roman Catholic Church in White Plains. The support of the parish over the years enabled the fledging organization to not only survive but to grow and flourish. When circumstances changed in early 2020, it became clear that Centro Hispano needed a new home. Even though plagued by health problems, Isabel devoted her last years to making that dream a reality.

Thanks to her vision and hard work, as well as the support of many individuals and community organizations, in June of 2022 El Centro Hispano purchased a building on Central Avenue in White Plains. Renovations took almost a year, but on June 26 2023, El Centro Hispano opened its doors and began serving the Hispanic community in its new location.

Throughout her long and distinguished career, Isabel was not only co-host of the Centro Hispano cable TV program, “El Centro Hispano Informa”, but she served on numerous committees, councils and advisory boards.

Her voice and influence reached far beyond her own community. Honored with forty-two different awards over the years, she was grateful for each and every one. A few of those that were especially meaningful to her were The Statue of Liberty Award, the Americanism Award from the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Women of Distinction Award from the New York State Senate,

The Caring New Yorker Award from Fidelis Care New York Liberty at the Madison Square Garden arena, the Harold Fitzpatrick Community Leadership Award from the African American Men of Westchester and the Business Council of Westchester, The AJC Westchester/Fairfield Woman of Valor Award and the Westchester County Board of Legislator for her outstanding contributions and civic activities in Westchester County as the Founding Director of El Centro Hispano.

She was proud to be inducted into the White Plains High School Hall of Fame, the YWCA Hall of Fame, and the Westchester Senior Citizens Hall of Fame. A very special moment was having a section of Lexington Avenue in White Plains renamed Isabel Elsa Villar Boulevard in her honor in October of 2013.

Isabel loved life and her spirit was indomitable. No matter how busy, she still found time for her two great passions, travel and music, sometimes combining them. She traveled to 102 countries and islands, some of them more than once, and she always had her next trip lined up. Isabel had a lovely voice and enjoyed singing, sometimes accompanying herself on the piano.

She delighted wedding guests in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Spain, Italy, and here at home in New York, Connecticut and Florida with her rendition of Ave Maria, and she never missed an opportunity to sing along with street musicians wherever she was. From 1966 – 2020 she was director of the Spanish choir at St. Bernard’s Church in White Plains.

Predeceased by her parents, Elsa Sanchez and Francisco Villar, Isabel’s survivors include her brother, Dr. Frank Villar Sanchez (Dr. Celis Fernandez) and her sister, Dalia Gonzalez (Carlos). She is also survived by her nephew, Dr. Franco Villar Fernandez, nieces, Yvette and Vanessa Gonzalez, grand-nephew, Ephrain Castillo, Jr., two aunts, one uncle, and eighteen cousins.

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