Manny Palgon, a Coconut Grove resident and retired dental laboratory owner, has been volunteering with Casa Valentina for years doing handiwork around the residences and giving our young people a safer, more comfortable place to live. We sat down with Manny to hear more about what keeps him coming back and that one moment that forever changed his outlook on life.
Tell us about how you got involved with Casa Valentina.
I’m friends with Marcia Reisman, who’s one of the founders of Casa Valentina. My background is in dental engineering and technology. They were looking for someone to do some handiwork at the residences on a volunteer basis. I said, yes, of course, and I asked my friend, John Frank, a retired engineer, if he wanted to join me. John and I began going regularly to help fix simple things that would make the living environment safer, more comfortable, like adding shelving to closets, installing vents in the kitchen, or putting up a shower curtain.
You’ve been volunteering for several years now, what keeps you coming back?
It’s gratifying to help Casa Valentina and the young adults they serve. These kids have had a hard life and when you see them face-to-face, hear their story and listen, it’s life-changing. They’re looking for someone to recognize who they are, know them by their first name, and I am grateful to be able to do that for them – and see a smile on their face.
Who has impacted you the most?
Probably the most significant experience in my time with Casa Valentina was modifying an apartment for a young woman named Belinda. She was 18 years old and had a baby who was about a year and a half old. They lived in a duplex. The baby had a makeshift crib pushed up against a wall with no side rails. Belinda had no place to hang up her clothes. John and I went over to fix the crib, gave her some cubbies for her clothes and fixed up the closet. Every day, Belinda would see us and thank us.
One day, she came over with her father – he was in a wheelchair. He would take the Metrorail from downtown, Belinda would meet him at the station and walk him over to her apartment so he could visit with his grandson. She would cook lunch for her father and after they’d visit, Belinda would walk him back to the metro station so he could return home.
Belinda was an artist and had a part-time job at Home Depot. I ran into her there one day and she recognized me, said, “Hello, Manny,” and hugged me. “I’m so grateful to see you, how’s John?” We’ve been in touch periodically since then. She went to Tallahassee for school and is back in Miami working on a college degree. She’s had a tough time and is making the best of it. It’s a proud moment to see how things have evolved in her life.
How has volunteering for Casa Valentina changed you?
Giving back with my time, simply doing something that I enjoy and love has made me more aware of the importance of having compassion, understanding, and empathy with everyone. I see how hard everyone works, how much the residents truly want to make their lives better. When you see it, feel it, that’s what enriches your life. It makes you a better person.