Published July 17. 2011 4:00AM Updated July 18. 2011 10:44AM
Eva Vega doesn't try to keep a poker face when she's on the job.
When a client struggles or fails to call, Vega's face is a picture of concern, like a mother waiting for a child who's late coming home from school.
When a woman turns a corner, gets a job or a new apartment or even just keeps an appointment with a counselor, Vega is the proud older sister, ready with a smile and encouraging words.
Vega, 44, is Bethsaida's Hispanic case manager. Although she has many clients of varying ethnic backgrounds, Vega spends a lot of time reaching out to New London County's growing Hispanic population. She knows there are undocumented immigrants who are reluctant to come forward. She hopes that by speaking their language, she can knock down at least one barrier.
It doesn't always work.
One Wednesday this spring, Vega was late for her usual weekly visits to Centro de la Comunidad and the Homeless Hospitality Center at St. James Episcopal Church, both in New London. She had been on the phone talking to a desperate woman.
"I'm afraid she's going to relapse," Vega said, frowning. "She's staying at a friend's house. I told her to call Stonington Institute and to get back into her groups. I know she's off her meds. She's very emotional."
When Vega first met the woman, she had been arrested and was addicted to alcohol and drugs. She had seemed to embrace Vega's help, getting into programs and counseling. But "she kind of disappeared on us" from a Norwich shelter, Vega said.
"When you see what they accomplish, it's disappointing," she said of the apparent relapse. "This feeling is new to me."
The issues her clients deal with are not new to her. She had been out of work for a year before starting at Bethsaida. Years earlier, in Providence, she too had lived in a women's shelter, after escaping a domestic violence situation in Pawtucket.
She worked for seven years at The Home Depot and then got a job at AmeriCorps in Providence as a Spanish translator in a program called Parents Making a Difference.
Bethsaida is different, she says repeatedly. It's customer service, she said, in a close, hands-on setting.
Vega drives clients to medical appointments and job interviews. She doesn't wait in the car, but accompanies the sometimes nervous and unsure women. She took one woman to pick up bus tickets so she could get to her new job at McDonald's.
Vega spent that Wednesday morning at Centro and the New London homeless shelter, hoping to run into some of her regular clients. The usual daytime crowd of 20 to 25 may include 10 to 15 women.
Her face brightens when she talks about Sarah Gamache, whom she met at the Covenant Shelter in New London. Within weeks, Gamache had a new set of dentures and a job.
"She looks so different now," Vega said, smiling proudly. "She's much more confident. She's pretty independent. ... She's doing very well."