Margarita Franco is a small woman with kind brown eyes and a soft voice. But people use heavy words to describe her.
They call her “indispensable.” “An expert.” “A pillar in the community.” Every day, she tackles obstacles that would daunt a giant.
Through her job at PASOs, a maternal and child health program for Latino families in South Carolina, she helps people overcome barriers to healthy lives. In a state that has one of the country’s fastest-growing Latino populations, Margarita holds a role on the front line.
“As immigrants, we have the strength and desire to transform ourselves,” she says. “But it is not just moving across one border to another country. There are more than physical barriers to cross—there are cultural and emotional challenges when you decide to live in a different culture.”
Margarita speaks from her own experience. She came to the United States six years ago, leaving her home in Colombia to continue her education in South Carolina. She was working as a research assistant when PASOs’ founder, Julie Smithwick-Leone, needed help moving the program forward.
Julie had created PASOs—which means “steps” in Spanish—to support an underserved group of women and raise their chances of a healthy pregnancy. Developed with input from the Latino community, the effort worked to educate parents and increase access to important resources.
As Julie’s first staff member, Margarita led classes in prenatal care and how to navigate health resources, answering questions about family planning, nutrition and exercise. She held outreach events in libraries, schools and churches, linking mothers to information and services.
Now, with support from the Greenville Hospital System and a grant from The Duke Endowment, she’s helping PASOs cultivate community engagement to strengthen the Latino voice in health issues. As director of community leadership development, she’s “a bridge,” she says, for families to make positive changes in their lives.
People seem drawn to Margarita’s strength and confidence. Julie uses the example of Norma, a Latina who first participated in PASOs when she was pregnant. Now, with Margarita’s guidance, the mother of two leads prenatal classes herself.
“I can tell you that she is a woman who has allowed me to remember that I am not in my country, but I can work to do a lot of things,” Norma says. “She gave me that security… Now I am trying to do the things that she did with the same passion.”
As Latino families become an even more vibrant—and growing—part of South Carolina, the need for PASOs only increases. From its small start in Columbia, the program now serves more than 5,000 people statewide.
Margarita is proud of her role. “I love helping families believe in themselves.”
Lin B. Hollowell III
Director of Health Care