Helen Arteaga is the director of Plaza del Sol Family Health Center in Corona, Queens. Born in New York to Ecuadorian parents, Helen was raised in Ecuador until age 12.
She spent her teenage years working alongside her dad as he struggled to advocate for the Corona community and assist residents to seek amnesty during the Reagan years. Helen often felt as if her home was an immigration office given the number of individuals her family helped.
“My culture became stronger,” says Helen. “Seeing how my father helped his community made it very clear that nothing was impossible for the Hispanic community of Corona if we stayed united.”
In the late 80s and early 90s, AIDS was taking a toll among Hispanics in the United States. During this time, Helen saw the injustices endured by the Hispanic community when seeking healthcare in an area where not many medical providers spoke Spanish and translators were not available at local clinics and hospitals. Many were undocumented and were unaware of Medicaid or other programs that could help them receive the care they needed.
After the death of her father, she set out to build a health center that would provide quality healthcare to the residents of her beloved Corona. Growing up, Helen knew instinctively, from her own experience, that Corona lacked healthcare resources and that many of the residents did not have access to affordable healthcare.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from New York University and a master’s degree in public health from Columbia University, Helen partnered with Urban Health Plan, Inc. to open Plaza del Sol. The center, which cares for all residents of Corona, opened in 2009 and has provided healthcare to more than 22,000 patients since opening.
“It is invaluable to have someone who can explain things to you in Spanish when you go to the doctor’s office in a place like Corona, Queens—where there is a large Spanish-dominant community,” said Helen.
Plaza Del Sol is changing the face of healthcare in Corona. Eighty percent of their pediatric patients are vaccinated, 60 percent of patients are screened for cancer, and 100 percent of pregnant mothers have carried their children full-term. But at Plaza Del Sol, it is more than just caring for the wellbeing of the individual. Plaza del Sol also provides social support to help many cope with the challenges of becoming Americanized and they also offer programs for youth including homework help and mentoring. Recently, it opened a community garden to help patients learn about eating healthy.
“I can say that the Corona community is healthier because of Plaza del Sol,” said Helen. “You can see it. You see fewer kids missing school and fewer parents missing work because fewer children are sick. The patients are dreaming more. If you are healthy, anything is possible. You can work harder and you can study harder. A healthy community is a better community for all us.”
Helen has been honored by numerous community based organizations. In 2010, she was one of 31 women selected by the New York City Commission on Women’s Issues to be featured in “NYC Women: Make it Here, Make it Happen,” a series highlighting women who made a difference in their communities. She also received the Community Impact Award, Humanitarian Award and City of New York American Dreamer Award.