Engage Winona program empowers residents

Photo by Alexandra Retter

Lived Experience Leader Gloria Alatorre developed a camp for children this summer combining Spanish immersion with wellness practices including yoga and art. Engage Winona’s Lived Experience Leader program aims to develop an inclusive group of leaders in Winona.



Originally from Cuba, Lisdamys Morera Gonzalez spent a decade in Peru as a physician before coming to Minnesota to complete research at the Mayo Clinic. She met her husband, who is from Winona, while at Mayo and arrived in the island city. She knew no one but her husband and his family. When she happened to see an Engage Winona post about the Lived Experience Leaders program on Facebook, she was nervous to reach out, but she jumped at the opportunity to make connections with others in town. She began a project on loneliness. 

The goal of the program is to diversify Winona’s community leaders and help those with underrepresented life experiences bring their ideas for assisting others to fruition. 

“I feel they’re giving a platform and voice to those who would normally be unheard,” program participant LaShara Morgan said. She added, “They truly give you the opportunity to be heard and be seen.”  

Though the community is the sum of everyone in it, Engage Winona Executive Director Marcia Ratliff said, everyone’s voice is not always heard. “And ultimately, it’s a more inclusive vision of the community. Because then you’re not just hearing from a few people, you’re hearing from everyone, and you might be hearing something that you didn’t hear before,” she said. Ratliff continued, “I think it gives people a broader sense of what Winona is as a community and as a town. And I think that’s also beneficial, because it continues to change, it continues to grow, and this is a way for the community to know that.” 

During the nine-month program, participants complete workshops on topics such as project planning in the first half, then begin to work more independently on their projects in the second half, all while having regular check-ins with other participants and mentors. A diverse advisory team helps guide participants. One group of participants has completed the program to date, and Engage Winona staff are currently speaking with those who applied for the second cohort.

Morera Gonzalez ultimately led a community survey about Winonans’ levels of loneliness prior to and during the pandemic with the hope of finding ways to help people feel more connected. Opening up conversations about loneliness is vital, she said, so people are not afraid to ask for assistance. Loneliness impacts not just mental health, she said, but physical health, as well. “I think the best thing for loneliness is to build a safe community,” she said. 

Next, Morera Gonzalez hopes to create an online program for discussing loneliness and compile local resources related to this topic. 

In another Lived Experience Leaders program project, Gloria Alatorre spearheaded a camp combining a Spanish immersion experience with wellness practices for children this summer. Children in Winona Area Public Schools’ (WAPS) Rios Spanish Immersion Program, children who are learning English at other schools in the community and children who are native Spanish speakers attended the camp. Participants did yoga and art; they also meditated, danced and learned about mental health. 

Alatorre is a Spanish interpreter for WAPS, and she recognized a high demand throughout the community for tutoring in Spanish from families often asking if she could serve as a tutor. “I wanted to bring my skills and knowledge of the language and what I knew about the wellness and the mindfulness world together and create something that would benefit the Spanish learners in the community in a fun way,” she said. 

Looking ahead, Alatorre hopes to collaborate with more organizations in the community, add more outdoor activities to the camp, have a bigger group of children attend and expand to other nearby cities. 

Morgan began Our Voices to provide Black students and students of color with a group in which they could be themselves freely and fully. As a participant in the Lived Experience Leaders program, she learned ways to continue to build the group, such as potentially becoming a nonprofit. “It helped me with a lot of understanding of how to get the group noticed more,” she said. 

Other projects included beginning a nonprofit to help people address stigma, such as time spent in jail or credit card debt, through workshops on subjects such as budgeting and record expungement; bringing a Native drumming program to area youth; and starting an anti-racism organization, with a long-term goal of beginning a diversity council. 

The participants agreed that they appreciated collaborating with one another and being connected with organizations in town. “Just being in a room full of people with all these great ideas was extremely helpful,” Morgan said. “You didn’t feel like you were doing it alone.” 

“It was really impactful to my professional, and also to my personal, life,” Alatorre said. 

More information is available at http://engagewinona.org.