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SILER CITY — When Chatham resident Hannia Benitez was younger, her mother taught her a few principles to live by: “Learn as much as you can. Ask a lot of questions,” and “also help your peers as best as you can.”
Today, Benitez, now 29, not only lives by those principles; she embodies them. After racking up knowledge from health care to property management, she’s decided to put it to use by giving back to her community as the Hispanic Liaison’s new Lee County deputy director.
The Hispanic Liaison officially opened a satellite office in Sanford last Tuesday after years of planning. From its new office, the Liaison plans to offer Lee County residents individualized assistance via their community support program, distribute information about crucial resources and provide COVID-19 response services.
“My role in this — I will help implement the program,” Benitez said, “and I’ll just be playing a key role in developing the trust with our community members, (working) to operate and create new relationships with local businesses, nonprofits, government and law enforcement agencies.”
Born in Tecun Uman, Guatemala, Benitez moved to Siler City with her mother and sister in 1998 when she was a young child. She attended Siler City Elementary, Chatham Middle and Jordan-Matthews, from which she graduated in 2010.
“Once a Jet, always a Jet,” she said with a laugh.
Siler City holds many fond memories for her — especially her school experiences, which helped her integrate into Chatham County.
For a long time, Benitez’s mother supported her and her sister as a single mother. In Guatemala, she was a kindergarten teacher, and she always encouraged her daughters to pursue their education.
“So my focus was on that and just seeing that example,” Benitez said, adding, “We grew up around that, and I was blessed to really have a large support group, academically, and that was a big factor in the fond memories that I have in Chatham County.”
After graduating Jordan-Matthews High School, Benitez bounced around different fields — and different cities. First up? Health care. She received a certificate as a Certified Nursing Assistant from Central Carolina Community College in 2014, and thereafter worked as a nursing assistant for several months.
In 2016, she moved on to real estate and property management, working as a site manager for Community Management Corporation and soon after as a general manager for MJ’s Staffing Inc. In the first half of the decade, she also married Delfino Benitez, a Lee County native, and lived in Sanford for a few years before returning to Siler City in 2016.
“I would say I married into Lee County,” Benitez joked, “and it’s something that’s part of who I am now as well. It’s something that I’m proud of, and it’s something that we share with our (three) children and with our families to really showcase the beautiful things in our region.”
In 2016, she also became involved with the Hispanic Liaison’s Board of Directors. She described her decision to join the nonprofit’s board as “just kind of going back to what was part of who I was.”
She first started participating in volunteer and community work when she was 12, she remembered, with communities of faith. She continued it in high school, joining leadership programs such as Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA) and AIM Club (Action, Inspiration and Motivation).
And while she was overseeing several apartments, an old high school acquaintance came knocking — John Byrne, a J-M teacher with whom she’d maintained a connection.
“He invited me to a staff meeting for El Vinculo, ‘Would you consider joining us?’” she said. “And I’m like, ‘Oh, my gosh, yes.’ You know, I didn’t think twice about it. And five years later, here we are.”
She served as board president for three years and worked with the Liaison and other Lee organizations as they sought to bring the Liaison to Sanford.
“(By working in) a lot of these different fields, I was able to have the experience, and the knowledge that, ‘OK, this I can all add,” she said. “… I’ve been blessed to have both doors be open to me, so that I can in turn give back to the community, and not only that, but take it a step further with El Vinculo.”
Last year, Benitez decided she wanted to do even more. Just before the COVID pandemic struck, the Liaison and its partners finalized plans for the Lee County satellite office. A few months later, they were able to secure a year’s funding for a Lee County deputy director — and once they posted the position, Benitez decided to give it a shot.
“I told Ilana, ‘I know this sounds crazy, but I want to get on this,’” she said with a laugh. “I want to do this for a living. I know I’ve been doing it on the side, but if you guys would consider me, I’ll be more than happy to come in here.’”
Ilana Dubester, the Liaison’s executive director, put her “through the wringer” during the interview, Benitez said, to ensure she qualified and eventually, she got the job.
Dubester said she was "thrilled" to have Benitez lead the organization's new Sanford office.
"She knows the organization well having served on our board of directors for 4 years and being one of our best volunteers," she told the News + Record. "Hannia brings a lot passion and compassion to the role. As an immigrant herself, she understands the hurdles that immigrants go through to adjust to life in the US. She’s extremely talented and a natural born leader."
Benitez officially started the first Monday of January. Until the Sanford office officially opened last week, she helped the Liaison with various projects while training — most notably the organization’s COVID-19 response program.
Recently, she had worked as a COVID-19 case investigator for the Carolina Community Tracing Collaborative. Her nursing background also afforded useful knowledge and experience.
“Before joining El Vinculo, I was temporarily doing case investigating for COVID response,” she said, “so I was like, ‘Hey, we did these strategies,’ you know, and being able to help our community members in that recent role as well really helped.”
Since joining, she said she’s asked a lot of questions, spoken with a lot of Lee County organizations and run all around Sanford trying to find office space to rent. Now, she plans to work on earning the Hispanic community’s trust in Lee County.
“Our biggest goal is the trust in our community, so that they know that, ‘Hey, you guys can reach out to us,’” she said. “‘We’re going to hear your concerns. We’re going to work with you through it. We’re going to be one-on-one.’”
So far, she said she’d enjoyed her work — and her coworkers — and hopes her example will inspire her children, just as her mom’s inspired her.
“(It) goes back to what my mom would say, ‘OK, let’s give back as best as we can because that’s what being part of the community is,’” she said. “That’s one of the biggest motivators, especially now that I’ve got three young kids that are looking at me.”
Reporter Victoria Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.