When Genesis Buendia was just 4-years-old her family packed up and boarded a one-way flight to Florida.
They weren’t vacationing to Disney World or even visiting family for a holiday, but rather they were in search of a better life.
Buendia, now 25, was born in a small village in the Philippines. She doesn’t remember much about her home country other than the exact layout of her grandmother’s home where she spent most of her early childhood days.
As they prepared to start a new life in America, her mom and dad explained to young Buendia that they had to move because they were working very hard, but weren’t getting paid for it.
“Honestly, that was a good way to explain it to a child,” she said. “But now that I’m older I understand and realize how messed up that really is.”
This came in the wake of the 1997 financial crisis in Asia. Widespread rioting broke out as a result of sharp price increases caused by a drastic devaluation of the rupiah, the official currency of Indonesia. Indonesian President
Suharto was forced to step down after 30 years in power and growth in the Philippines dropped to virtually zero by 1998.
After living nearly her entire life in the United States, this became Buendia’s home. But it wasn’t until recently that she was legally able to call it that.
On July 19 of this year, Buendia and 87 other immigrants from 32 different countries walked across a stage at the Peoria Public Library to shake a few hands and accept a certificate that marked the end of a long journey and the beginning of a new one.
Buendia started her naturalization process in February of 2018. She considers herself one of the “lucky ones” as some immigrants can wait upward of 10 years or longer to become a naturalized citizen.
She held her American flag proudly as her “second” family stood behind her. Unfortunately her family was unable to see her gain her citizenship as they still live in Florida, but she was happily surrounded by her new found friends at the Immigration Project.
For the past two years Buendia has worked as a volunteer coordinator for the Immigration Project based out of Bloomington. She has always had a passion for service oriented work and being an immigrant herself, she was eager to learn more and help others going through the same experiences that she was.
The Immigration Project is a not-for-profit organization serving immigrants in downstate Illinois through providing resources and assisting with legal issues.
After her graduation from Florida Atlantic University where she studied anthropology, she applied to AmeriCorps VISTA and her heart was set on Boston.
“But this place [Bloomington] chose me,” she said. “And AmeriCorps VISTA changed my life ... the stars were aligning.”
AmeriCorps VISTA is similar to the Peace Corps, but focuses more on alleviating domestic poverty. Buendia was assigned to Bloomington where she worked closely with local volunteers and learned the ins and outs of the immigration process.
“It really changed my perspective about immigration,” Buendia said.
Now she is starting the applied community and economic development graduate program here at Illinois State University where she looks forward to continuing her work with not-for-profits and more specifically immigration related organizations.
“It’s cut throat work, but I want to give immigrants a sense of family,” she said.
She added that the relationships she has built are what keeps her in this line of work. She believes that she has been very fortunate and now she wants to pay it forward.
“I don’t want anyone to feel how I felt,” she said. “I want to help others be heard, felt and accepted.”
Her experience with the Immigration Project and the support from her co-workers has given her the confidence and motivation to keep going.
“I’ve realized that yes, I can do this for the rest of my life.”
And that is exactly what she plans to do.