As Maria Navarro Castillo graduates this May, she can reflect on three and a half years of service and experiences at Sacred Heart Center, a Richmond nonprofit that connects Latino families with tools to thrive and flourish.

Most recently, Navarro Castillo has supported the administrative and community engagement efforts for Casa Lapiz, an art program that strives to create a safe space where middle school students can express themselves through drawing, painting, collage, and sculpture. 

Even in the midst of the pandemic, Navarro Castillo has continued her engagement with the organization and applied for Bonner Center for Civic Engagement student engagement funding to purchase art kits for the students enrolled in Casa Lapiz.

"We hope to use these kits to continue the class curriculum virtually and to equip our students with the creative tools to foster self-expression, celebrate cultural identities, and cultivate a sense of hope through artistic healing during COVID-19 social distancing," Navarro Castillo said.

Navarro Castillo’s ongoing service to Sacred Heart Center and to her students – hours she continues despite having already fulfilled her Bonner Scholars Program requirements – reflects a deep sense of commitment and gratitude.

"Working at the Sacred Heart Center was the highlight of my college experience," Navarro Castillo said. "It has shaped who I am now and what I hope to become in the future. It taught me to propel my passion for serving others into meaningful and lasting actions that can support the community around me. It granted me the opportunity to work alongside a group of driven and noble mentors that taught me to act with compassion and solidarity in order to create an inclusive community that thrives in the celebration of our identity, culture, and art."

Navarro Castillo’s many roles with Sacred Heart Center afforded her these opportunities to learn from their inspiring staff.

Among her first responsibilities was answering phone calls and referring clients to appropriate resources within Sacred Heart Center and its partners.

Gradually, she took on more administrative duties and provided operational support for the Center’s summer camp, pre-K enrichment, and high school programming.

As a junior, she taught upper-level English classes for adults in the evenings and supported the organization’s community outreach and development initiatives.

"One of my fondest memories was leading a bilingual story-telling show for the Virginia Museum of Fine Art's Family Weekend to celebrate the art of Latin America in Patagonia," Navarro Castillo said.

Navarro Castillo’s many contributions to the organization didn’t go unnoticed.

"It has been an honor and a privilege to be able to witness Maria’s journey with us here at Sacred Heart Center over the last several years," said executive director Tanya Gonzalez. "She has been an important part of our Sacred Heart Center family and has positively impacted almost every program in our organization. Her energy and spirit are amazing, she is compassionate, and she does great work. We will miss her and wish her the very best in her new chapter!"

With so many experiences with Sacred Heart Center already under her belt, Navarro Castillo is well-poised for a career after graduation.

"I hope to continue advancing my professional experience in the nonprofit sector, specifically with immigration and resettlement issues pertaining to the Latinx community," Navarro Castillo said. "Whatever I do, I want to use my education to do work that gives me meaning and does good in the world."


Navarro Castillo is pictured above (second from left) with members of the Sacred Heart Center team. Photo courtesy of Scott Elmquist.