By Ana Martinez-Ortiz Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service Published Nov 13, 2021 at 6:01 PM

When Sophia Valero moved back to the Milwaukee area, she knew she needed help to create the life she wanted for her two-month-old daughter.

Through her stepsister, Ariel Cruz, Valero joined Lola’s New Beginnings, first as a client and now as a part-time employee. The group is a nonprofit organization that provides resources and education services to pregnant women and mothers.

“At first, when I moved here, my goals were to get a car, get an apartment and just get the ball rolling,” Valero said. “Since then, all those things have been accomplished so now, me and Ariel work on new goals. I want to get back in school and get to a better place for me and my daughter.”

Cruz serves as a care coordinator and social media marketer for the organization.

Stephanie Soto and Olivia Buenrostro-Soto, Cruz’s mom and grandmother, started Lola’s New Beginnings in 2020. The organization’s mission is to help the women and their families.

“We wanted to try to offer these girls a new beginning to help lessen the struggle of what they’re going through,” Soto said. “COVID made it a lot more difficult, but that’s what our mission was, to give new beginnings.”

To receive services from the program, women must be pregnant or have an infant who is two months old or younger, receive state insurance and live in Milwaukee County. Lola’s New Beginnings provides them with a care coordinator and access to parenting classes on topics such as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome or SIDS, breast feeding, car seat safety, health and nutrition and child development.

Before opening Lola’s New Beginnings, Soto and Buenrostro-Soto both worked for Milwaukee Public Schools and had served as care coordinators for other organizations. When Soto decided to start her own company, Buenrostro-Soto was by her side.

"Where my passion comes through"

The two decided to name the group after Buenrostro-Soto’s mother and Soto’s grandmother, Lola – a woman known for taking charge and serving others.

“My mom was a community activist,” Buenrostro-Soto said. “She changed the voting rights for people down in Texas, and she helped people get funding and money for when they got injured.”

Soto’s desire to open Lola’s stemmed for her own experience.

“I was born and raised in Milwaukee,” Soto said. “And I was 15 when I had my son, and these services weren’t available back then. To just know what I personally walked through and to know I have something to give that wasn’t there for me, that’s mind-blowing. That’s where my passion comes through.”

The organization originally started in Soto’s living room. Within two months, the group hired 13 care coordinators and needed more space. Lola’s New Beginnings relocated to South 27th Street and West Forest Home Avenue for five months before moving to its current location, 3330 S. 16th St.

“When we started growing and I started to see the pattern, I knew it was going to happen fast,” Soto said. “I just didn’t know it was going to happen that fast.”

Soto said she always knew there was a need for an organization like Lola’s, and the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic shed a light on its importance.

When women join the program, they are assigned a care coordinator who does a full needs assessment. The program offers its services in English, Spanish, Burmese, Rohingya and Hmong. It is currently seeking care coordinators who speak Dari or Pashto to connect with Afghanistan refugees.

“When you’re able to reach that many families with all those languages, and it’s not a barrier, it’s so exciting to be able to do that and to watch,” Buenrostro-Soto said.

For women lacking transportation, Lola’s offers Lola’s Magic – a transportation service that takes the women where they need to go.

Together, the care coordinator and client create a care plan that suits the client’s goals such as housing, education, employment, child care and more. Each plan is individualized and updated every two months to reflect the client’s current goals. Client can remain in the program until their youngest child turns 7.

“I tell the girls the more time you have with them, the more you can educate them,” Soto said. “And that’s what this is all about: building that connection and that bond to build safe behaviors, healthy behaviors while they’re pregnant to carry on through motherhood.”

Through Lola’s, women can earn their community-based residential facilities certification. Community-based residential facilities are living spaces for adults and is a type of assisted living. Once certified, participants can seek employment at group homes or nursing homes, Soto explained. The training takes four days and covers medication administration, standard precautions, first aid certification and fire safety.

The women can also receive car seats, diapers and clothing for all their children. As of October 2020, Lola’s had given away 102 car seats, 154 pack n’ plays and over 1,000 packs of diapers.

“A lot of my clients, when I give them donations from our closet, they feel the love and they’ll want to give back, too,” Cruz said. “They’ll actually trade me out donations. So I give, and they give back, and it spills into that cycle of growth and empowerment.”

Cruz said she seeks to teach her clients the importance of self-love.

“I think it’s a lot of self-esteem with my clients,” she said. “I work hard to build their self-esteem and to give them affirmation and hope that it gets better. I think that’s a hurdle I come across with all my clients.”

Soto said it’s about making things easier for the moms.

“All we are is just a vehicle to get them where they need to go and get them to where their goals are,” Buenrostro-Soto said.