Empowering for Latinas for a better life
The SEPA Mujer staff at the Patchogue headquarters (left to right): executive director Martha Maffei, paralegal Jennifer Gil-Vinueza and Jessica Reyes from AmeriCorps VISTA.


Empowering for Latinas for a better life



They call for information.

Lots of it.

It could be how to handle a landlord dispute. Or an entrepreneur who needs resources that can aid a new business. Or help in finding a new home. 

Sometimes the situation is darker. 

“We got a call from a victim of human trafficking,” said Martha Maffei, executive director of SEPA Mujer, “and we were in the middle, talking to police. They come, too, for shelter and counseling. A woman will call and say, ‘my husband kicked me out and I know you speak Spanish.’”

That’s the basis for SEPA Mujer Inc., a nonprofit in Patchogue that helps Latina women steer through the complexities of a new country, help them realize their value and gain wellbeing, pride and success through resources, training and workshops.

It’s not easy. Maffei said she sometimes gets 30 calls a day. 

“Most are English learners, not as proficient as they’d like to be yet, so they pick us,” she said. “So we get calls on everything.

Right now there are three in the SEPA Mujer Patchogue office: Maffei, Jessica Reyes from AmeriCorps VISTA and paralegal Jennifer Gil-Vinueza. 

On last year’s budget of $258,284, they’ve done a lot of heavy lifting. 

“We do miracles here,” Maffei said. About 50 percent comes from foundations and private grants; government grants make up 24 percent. The rest is mostly from donations and membership fees. 

They aided 160 direct legal services last year; with referrals, workshops, seminars, training and education, they assist 2,000.  

How much would they need to accomplish their goals?

“Millions,” said Reyes, laughing. 

“I would wish for $1.5 million,” Maffei said.

“We had a federal grant for the legal department from the Department of Justice for three years,” Maffei said. “Unfortunately, the grant ended, but we still have 160 cases open and we have to find a way to fundraise. Those grants are competitive.”

It was pointed out that Omar was a gay Latino man who received help. 

“Our main focus is immigrant women, but we represent people of different genders, too, that includes men who are victims of sexual and domestic violence,” Maffei said. “Omar was escaping a hate crime in his country because of his sexual orientation. He lived in Hampton Bays and had to go to into Manhattan for an attorney and it was a hardship for him to travel there to apply for asylum. He had been beaten and threatened often where he lived and was told he would be killed. His life was in danger and the police failed to protect him. In the end it’s about who’s the most vulnerable.”

When Omar called, a consultation was arranged to see if he qualified for SEPA’s legal services. 

“Once our attorney determined he was qualified, he met with him and wrote up his story. That’s painful for Omar because those who have been violated are victimized again, dredging up those memories.”

If shelter is needed, Maffei’s office calls domestic violence agencies to provide shelter. If a counseling representative is needed in court, that is arranged. 

“Maybe Omar wants a scholarship or training. We have a development resource guide,” she said.

For women, Maffei said the legal process is the same. “Or maybe this person wants to be part of our organization and do more in her community,” Maffei explained.

“Many have language access issues, so we connect them with our legal department, then have an orientation for new members and tell them about our programs. They can attend monthly meetings on topics they request if they join one of our chapters. It’s just not a one-thing process.”

There are four Suffolk County chapters: Hampton Bays, Riverhead, Patchogue and Huntington Station. The SEPA Mujer headquarters is Patchogue.

“We had a community forum in Riverhead and had 300 people,” Maffei said. “Hampton Bays has housing and transportation issues so we may have a forum on what can we do about these issues in the community.”

Dulce Rojas serves as a senior organizer; there are two leader coordinators, Victoria Hernandez organizes the Western Suffolk Chapter of SEPA Mujer and Paola Zuniga organizes the Eastern Suffolk Chapter. 

The Patchogue location was chosen as their Suffolk headquarter base because of its relatively easy access off Sunrise Highway and the Long Island Rail Road stop. “The other reason is that there are a lot of Peruvians and Ecuadorians in the village,” she said. “Also, I know a lot of people from Patchogue: [executive director of Patchogue Village Community Development Agency] Marian Russo, Patchogue-Medford Library Spanish outreach coordinator Jean Kaleda as well as Gilda Ramos.”

“About 10 years ago there was a grant from the Long Island Community Foundation for a census count to make sure we get a fair count of the different groups on Long Island,” said Russo. “Sepa Mujer had also received a grant from them, so I knew Martha originally from that. Jean [Kaleda] emailed me, ‘do you know a place that’s renting?’ When Rabbi Joel Levinson retired from Temple Beth El, I spoke to a board member asking if they would be interested in renting. It’s a great building and I think it’s a good fit for Patchogue. It’s to our benefit to have a human services organization that helps Latina women. It’s for domestic violence survivors, legal services and they offer civic engagement and leadership training to be involved in the local community.”

Among the civic engagement success stories is Zuniga, now the Eastern Suffolk Chapter organizer, who was elected to the FRNCA (Flanders Riverside and Northampton Civic Association) board. “She is the first Latina elected for this civic association,” Maffei said. “Naomi Sanchez is a survivor of domestic violence, now board member of SEPA Mujer, and is the first Latina organizer of Rural Migrant Ministry in Riverhead.” 

“They came to us and when we found out the nature of their program and how much they did to protect women in society, we welcomed them,” said Rabbi Fellner of Temple Beth El. “They are able to support their function in safety and the beauty of this building and with support from us from the Jewish community. They are wonderful tenants.”