CINCINNATI -- For 21 years, Lilleana Cavanaugh has been working with the Latino community in Ohio. Currently, she is the executive director of the Ohio Latino Affairs Commission (OCHLA).
The commission advises legislators and elected officials on matters related to Hispanics in the state, connects the Latino service organizations and empowers Latino leaders and service organizations.
Cavanaugh is considered an expert on leadership development, community engagement, cultural competence and global communications.
And, in her lifetime experience, she has found that although Latinos are a part of the fabric of most professions, the profile of their community has been decidedly low key.
"We recognize there is a disconnect," Cavanaugh said, "and it is very clear to us that we need to be more inclusive of the Latino community."
That is why she is so thrilled to be involved in an annual awards gala that recognizes and honors Ohio Latinos who are dedicated to making the world a better place: the Governor's Distinguished Hispanic Ohioans Awards Gala.
The 36th annual gala, presented by the OCHLA in partnership with Ohio State University's Office of Diversity and Inclusion, is Oct. 7 at Blackwell Inn in Columbus.
The event, which recognizes individuals and organizations that have demonstrated outstanding achievements in their professional or community endeavors and are role models for the Hispanic community, will honor 18 Hispanic Ohioans this year, including five from Cincinnati.
OCHLA will also present awards called Nuestra Familia (Our Families) to non-Hispanic individuals and organizations who work to include Latinos in their local communities, plus the Military Service of Distinction Awards to those Latinos who have either served or are serving in the country's armed forces.
"These are very committed people who are quietly making a difference in their communities in many ways," Cavanaugh said. "They are our unsung heroes."
The honorees are nominated by the Ohio Latino Affairs Commissioners (who are appointed by the governor) and then are selected as awardees by the commission's board.
The gala presents an opportunity to reflect on the contributions of Hispanics to Ohio and to celebrate the culture in the midst of Hispanic Heritage Month.
For Cavanaugh, it's been a lifelong passion and calling to work with her community.
"Since I was a little child growing up in Costa Rica, I wanted to empower people to reach for better lives," she said. "I believe that understanding cultures from everywhere, whether it be Asia or South Africa, is important because it helps in building bridges."
Cavanaugh has made that her guiding principle in every position she has ever held, both nationally and internationally.
"The awardees are wonderful," Cavanaugh said. "They are incredible, and committed to people-building and education. Each one is amazing, outstanding and very engaged."
She noted that the struggles of Latinos are no different from those who emigrated earlier from Europe. There is always a time period in which the country adjusts to new immigrants.
"We always recommend that newcomers build friendships quickly and not isolate themselves. We have seen in the past that understanding cultures leads to a greater level of tolerance and understanding as to who immigrants really are," Cavanaugh said.
"And to feel accepted and to feel welcome is something all immigrants want."
Ohio, she says, is a perfect example of a melting pot.
"Ohio is truly a global state. Immigrants from Asia, Africa and Latin America make their home here. That we are open and attractive to all who want to live and work here is a huge asset."
It's a relationship that benefits both sides.
"And being a multicultural country gives us all a huge competitive edge," Cavanaugh said.