DAUPHIN COUNTY, Pa. (WHTM) — For Hispanic Heritage Month, abc27 is recognizing the contributions of Hispanic and Latino Americans in the Midstate, highlighting the stories of people and issues that impact the community.

The Hispanic population in Dauphin County has boomed over the last 20 years, from just over 6,000 in 2000 to more than 31,000 today.

Born and raised in Dauphin County, Gloria Vazquez Merrick has been impacting the Hispanic community her entire life.

There are certain people who are just called to improve the lives of others. Gloria Vazquez Merrick is one of those people.

She is following in her father’s footsteps. He came to the U.S. from Puerto Rico in 1952 and began giving back to the Hispanic community in Harrisburg.

Gloria has spent her entire life doing the same.

“My father decided he loved his country, his native land, but to have a better life for his family, a better future, it meant him leaving his home and coming to New York,” Merrick said.

Working in construction, he moved to Harrisburg. Then he had Gloria, who is one of six children. She watched as he gave back.

“Because he knew what all of the necessities and needs were of the community, having experienced that firsthand himself, he started working with the church — and from that evolved a Puerto Rican organizing committee, then another committee and then from that evolved a Latino Center on 13th Street,” Merrick said.

Now, Gloria is the Executive Director of the Latino Hispanic American Community Center on Derry Street.

“This isn’t my first rodeo, I worked in government, started as a secretary and worked my way up to a Senior Consultant in the Governor’s Office of Administration,” she said.

She says her life has come full circle. From serving the community, volunteering at church as a child, to serving the community in this role. But while many things have changed over her life, some have not.

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“A lot of those barriers that I’ve experienced in the past, they just continue to be passed on from generation to generation. And I see they’re being accommodated in certain ways but there’s more there. There’s more that needs to be done,” she said.

Communication, transportation, access to technology are all barriers she’s trying to bring down.

“The way my role shifted was from providing basic human needs in the community to developing empowerment programs like the ESL program, having focus groups with our youth to find out what their needs were,” she said.

She started a leadership program for high school juniors and seniors and a senior program for fellowship and socialization.

The work within the walls of the Latino Hispanic American Community Center varies day to day. But the impact is reaching far beyond Harrisburg.

“My legacy that I hope I leave is that I instilled in our community a sense of hope, of togetherness, of pride in their culture. And that I’ve been able to help many generations to come by helping the generations that I’m helping now,” she said.

The Latino Hispanic American Community Center is located on Derry Street in Harrisburg but serves Hispanic community members from Dauphin, Cumberland and Perry Counties.