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Beth Rickers/Daily Globe Nelson Bonilla displays the MJF Outstanding Service Award in the Community Connectors office located at the West Learning Center in Worthington.

Bonilla receives award for advocacy

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WORTHINGTON -- Nelson Bonilla thought his birthday couldn't get much better than spending it on vacation in Puerto Rico with his wife, Brenda Then he got checked his phone messages and learned that he'd been named as the Advocate Outstanding Service Award winner from the Minnesota Justice Foundation.

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"It really came as a surprise," said Bonilla, who until then was unaware he'd been nominated for the honor by local attorney Kathy Kusz. "It was just 'Wow.'"

That notification came on Oct. 17, and last week Bonilla accepted the honor at the MJF's annual awards celebration in Minneapolis. He feels "humbled" by the accolade.

"It brought back so many memories" of the people he has helped in his role as a Community Connector in Worthington, Bonilla said. "When you get an award like this, you accept it for all the people who do the work I do and the people I send them to. We have no place to send them if those people are not there. I thanked God for the strength he's given me and the people who are there."

Bonilla, a Brooklyn, N.Y., native of Puerto Rican descent, has lived in Worthington since the 1980s.

An Army veteran, Bonilla had completed a tour of duty in Korea in 1978 and was stationed at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., when he met fellow soldier and wife-to-be Brenda, who hailed from Bemidji. After his discharge, Bonilla worked for Bally Manufacturing Corp. and took a post as manager of the arcade in Worthington in order to get closer to Brenda's roots.

"Our plan was to stay here six months," recalled Bonilla, who has two daughters and nine grandchildren. "But we fell in love with Worthington. ... It's a wonderful city to raise children, a safe place to be. I've enjoyed it."

After stints as a correction officer and police dispatcher, in 1999 Bonilla became a full-time Community Connector, employed in bilingual outreach through the Southwestern Minnesota Opportunity Council. He averages approximately 1,000 contacts with families each year.

"I'm dealing with the newcomers who come to Worthington, Minn., and need information, employment, how to register their students for school, help them if they need immunization records for the children, have them faxed to us, as an intermediary to guide them through the process," he explained. "We try to make it as easy as possible for them to transition into a new city.

"We help anyone who comes in, and if we do not know the answers, we find the person who has those answers," he added. "They leave with hope in their hand, knowing someone is going to help them, and we have the satisfaction of knowing that person has been guided to the resources they need. ... And when we get them the information they need, we don't just say 'See you later.' We say, 'Come on back.'"

The biography printed in the MJF award program included this description of Bonilla's work: Due to the lack of trained outreach persons for other language groups, Nelson has often worked directly with these families himself. In fact, on his first day on the job, he assisted a Lao family who had lost their living residence due to a fire. Despite the obvious language and culture barriers, Nelson was able to work with various community agencies to ensure that the family's basic living essentials were being met. There have been other noteworthy challenges, perhaps none more significant than the ICE raid at the JBS plant in December 2007. Nelson was the point person in distributing more than $105,000 in financial aid to assist the families directly impacted by the raid.

In addition to his work as a Community Connector, Bonilla has also taught Homestretch classes in Spanish to instruct residents on how to purchase a home; served on the advisory board of the Nobles County Integration Collaborative; provided support for the Community Christmas Basket program; and is active in his church.

His faith is the primary force in his life, Bonilla stressed, and is essential in helping him advocate for local citizens.

"I start my day reading the Scriptures and asking God for strength, because without Him, we can do nothing," he said. "Then I come to work and am ready to tackle whatever comes."

In her homination of Bonilla for the Advocate Award, Kusz described him as someone who goes "above and beyond" his assigned duties.

"Nelson strives to serve the whole person," she wrote. "He doesn't just seek to serve the specific need that was brought to him, but he is great at spotting other issues for which people aren't even sure where to begin in asking for help."

While Bonilla is proud of the award, his real reward comes when he encounters the people he has helped in the community.

"Watching families grow" provides the greatest satisfaction, Bonilla said, "and just the smiles that people give you. When you see people you've helped when they've been in a dire crisis, because to them it is a dire crisis, and we feel honored that they would come and ask us for help.

"Helping people is not a 9-to-5 job," Bonilla explained. "It's 24-7, 365 days a year. ... We're all together on this little planet, and helping a neighbor is a wonderful thing to do."

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Beth Rickers
Beth Rickers is the veteran in the newspaper staff with 25 years as the Daily Globe's Features Editor. Interests include cooking, traveling and beer tasting and making with her home-brewing husband, Bryan. She writes an Area Voices blog called Lagniappe, which is a Creole term that means "a little something extra." It can be found at http://lagniappe.areavoices.com/.  
(507) 376-7327
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