When she first encountered Maritza Robles, Anita Echevarria didn’t know that she’d met her own personal angel.
“You always knew that Maritza was watching, no matter what,” Echevarria says. “The community’s kids were her kids.”
Born in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, Robles came to United States in 1972 as a graduate student at the University of Notre Dame. After earning her master’s degree, she joined the South Bend Community School Corporation as director of Bilingual Services. In that role, she mentored hundreds of Hispanic students through high school, college, and beyond.
It was a responsibility that Robles took seriously. In a South Bend Tribune article from 1989, Robles said, “My grandparents were very poor. My mother and my aunts did much better than my grandparents, and my cousins and I are doing better than they did. The next generation has to do better than us—that’s an expectation.”
When Echevarria was getting ready to graduate from Notre Dame with an accounting degree, Robles reached out to her former student. As a first-generation college graduate, Echevarria didn’t have a concrete plan for her future—but Robles did.
“You come and work for me,” Robles said, firmly, “and I’m going to network for you.”
From there, doors opened. After several years, the accounting position at the School Corporation led to a more advanced position at Indiana University South Bend, where Echevarria earned her MBA.
But her angel wasn’t finished yet. In 2002, Robles reached out to Echevarria about an open position at a local nonprofit: the Community Foundation of St. Joseph County. Robles was a big supporter of the foundation, where she had been a founding Board member and chaired its grants committee.
Robles told Echevarria that she needed to meet Rose Meissner, the president of the foundation, and apply for the job. Echevarria followed her mentor’s advice.
“Rose says that when she reached back out to Maritza to let her know that I interviewed, Maritza told her, ‘If you get her, you’ll think you’ve died and gone to heaven. She’ll be really good for the foundation,’” Echevarria remembers.
Today, Echevarria is a vice president at the Community Foundation, and often thinks about how different her life might have been without Robles.
“My dad worked in a factory, my mom cleaned rooms, nobody else in the family went to school—I really had no association with any kind of office or professional jobs.”
Robles helped students like Echevarria navigate the educational system, get jobs—and, for a special group of five siblings, even find a home. In 1987, Robles made a promise to a seven-year-old boy that she met at Greene Primary Center. José, along with his four younger siblings, had been removed from a parent’s home because of neglect. The boy told Robles that his one wish was to stay together with his siblings, and she promised to make that happen. She fought for years to keep them together, eventually adopting the five siblings herself in 1990.
“People thought, ‘How are you going to juggle it all?’” Echevarria says, “but she did. It was amazing.”
Robles passed away in 2017, but the young people who benefited from her mentoring will feel the impact of their angel forever.
“All of us that are the seeds of the flowers that she planted,” Echevarria says.
Her work continues through the Carmen Maritza Robles Fund at the Community Foundation, which she established during her lifetime.