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Lilia Caballero and Medford police Chief Randy Sparacino start off the last Latino Citizens' Academy event of the year at the Medford police station. [Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch]

Helping people gain their lives

Editor’s note: Community Builder is a periodic Q & A series providing perspectives from local people who have been involved in significant change in Southern Oregon. Today’s conversation is with Lilia Caballero, Medford Police Department cultural outreach coordinator, coordinator of the annual Latino Citizens' Academy, and a member of the Medford School Board and many other local boards and groups.

Q: How did Southern Oregon become your home?

Lilia: I moved here because my older brother lived here. People are always looking for jobs, right? So back when the mill industry was pretty heavy, my older brother said, “You guys need to come here, because there’s jobs here.” That was over 28 years ago. I was raised in Sonora, Mexico, which is in the desert in the northern part of the country, a border town called San Luis, Sonora, Mexico. I came to Medford a couple times just to visit my brother when I was young. When I came here, I thought it was beautiful. The greenery and the weather, it’s just absolutely amazing.

Q: What was your childhood like growing up in northern Mexico?

Lilia: It was always hot and a lot of sun, very dry. I loved the season just before the heat, before the summer was going to start. It had a beautiful smell. The air smelled fresh. I have five siblings, so we’d play a lot outdoors. I remember playing real late at night because that’s when it cooled off a little bit.

Q: You were a respiratory therapist for a while. How did that come about?

Lilia: I love to learn. I went to Rogue Community College when my daughter was 2 years old. I graduated from a technical high school in Mexico, so I had a lot of science, chemistry and math. I remember seeing an ad saying they were going to have this two-year program where you could become either a respiratory therapist or a nurse. I enrolled at RCC in a program led by Pedro Cabrera to become a respiratory therapist. I love school. I always loved it. I’ll be a professional lifetime student. Me fascina aprender. I love learning. I worked as a respiratory therapist for eight years. I love helping people. That’s basically what it is. And little by little, I’m working toward my transfer degree to go to SOU.

Q: Tell me what your role is with the Medford Police Department as the cultural outreach coordinator.

Lilia: A cultural liaison … it depends on the day, but basically this position was created in 1989 to develop a better means of communicating with the Hispanic community here in the valley. Medford police needed to have the community understand how the police work and for the police to know the Latino community. So to build bridges of communication. You know, it depends on what country you come from. The experience that you have had in your country, that’s the impression you bring here of how the police work. In 2016, along with Deputy Chief Bret Johnson, we created the first Latino Citizens' Academy, which is a series of weekly programs to inform the Latino community about the work of the Medford Police Department. I feel those have helped inform the Spanish-speaking citizens about the work of the MPD.

Q: You’ve become involved in the community in many ways, such as a member of the Medford School Board. What motivates you to be involved in the schools?

Lilia: I have three kids who graduated from Medford School District, and I have always been a very involved parent. I graduated from high school in Mexico so, of course, my upbringing and my schooling was different than it is here. But I know the importance of education. I learned that as a parent I needed to be present for my child at the school. I wanted the school to know who the mother of these kids was, so education to me is a passion. I was really involved with them. I was with my kids helping with homework, asking them questions, testing them and making them do the work. I knew Marlene Yesquen, on the board, and I knew her term was going to be ending. My kids had already gotten out of high school, and I thought I could do it. I felt like I was doing it out of necessity to be that little voice for the people who sometimes are not being heard. I’ve learned that in order to make change, you have to be at the table where decisions are made. We can scream and yell and everything on the outer part, but changes don’t happen there. Changes happen at the table, so I strongly recommend that people get involved where the changes are made. It requires time and commitment and to be present.

Q: What changes have you seen in the Latino community since you’ve been in the valley?

Lilia: I have been in this position for almost 10 years. What I’ve seen is the increase of trust. I want people to feel comfortable coming forward when they have been victimized, and they know they can talk to me. I am a civilian employee. I’m not a sworn officer, and I speak their language. I understand the culture and that makes a big difference. I have seen from Medford Police Department an opportunity to create a connection with the community. The goal of the Medford Police Department is to create a connection so they can develop trust.

Q: How would you characterize life in the Rogue Valley for Hispanic Americans?

Lilia: Much, much better sometimes than the places that we come from. There are a lot more opportunities. There are opportunities for people to move ahead, to prosper, to get an education, to get a job, to succeed, to help themselves and in turn help others.

Q: What do you think are the biggest challenges to improve life in Southern Oregon? What have you seen?

Lilia: Speaking the language and learning how to navigate the system. When you have an issue with the school district ... an agency ... the police ask, “Who can help me? Where do I go?” There are plenty of resources, but I think as a person trying to survive or to make yourself better, you’ve got to get out of your shell and go find out about these resources. You ask questions, because there is a lot of help out there, but I don’t think help is going to come to you if you don’t ask for it.

Q: What activities do you enjoy in Southern Oregon? What do you like to do?

Lilia: I like to ride my mountain bike. I love hiking too. I like to be in nature. Running is my other activity, which I discovered seven years ago. I enjoy the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I love to see the plays. Movies at the park, that’s also very nice. I like to be outdoors when it’s nice and cool. I read a lot. I love to read. I just finished “The DeAutremont Brothers: America’s Last Great Train Robbery” by Margaret LaPlant. Right now I am reading “Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic” by Sam Quinones. I do things that enrich me. That gives me satisfaction. I love to visit my five grandkids. They live here in Medford.

Q: What have you learned about people in the Rogue Valley through your work, your board capacities, and community involvement?

Lilia: I think one of the things I’ve learned is that no matter where we come from, who we are or what our background is, all of us have a good heart. It’s a very caring place here. But you cannot receive the help if you don’t ask for it, and it’s real hard for us to ask for help, especially in my culture, but people are very willing to really help.

Q: What do you love about this place you call home?

Lilia: I love the beauty of the place. I feel so blessed to live here. I love how easy it is. It’s not a big community, but it’s not small either. Everything is so nearby. There are a lot of things that you can do. I’m always checking the last page of the Mail Tribune, “Get Up and Go,” because I want to know what’s out there.

Q: What have you learned about the Medford Police Department that people might not know?

Lilia: I don’t have any police or law enforcement background, so when I started working here and I started to know the officers, I saw them as human beings. I saw that they have kids and they have wives, they have parents. My perspective switched, because they’re like me. They have feelings and they have the toughest job that I can think of. They’re the ones who go and check on the elderly person who has died alone a week ago. They go to the hospital and check on this baby who was beaten up. Those things are not pleasant at all, and the police still really care. They go above and beyond to try to give the best service to the person in the worst crisis of their lives. I have changed my perspective, honestly. I thought they were immune to being sensitive, and they’re not. You know, they’re human beings like us, and that’s what I want people to realize. They’re trained to enforce the law, but it doesn’t take away the human element in them.

Q: Tell me a story about someone you’ve interacted with in your job that because of your involvement the outcome was much more positive.

Lilia: I’m going to tell you the story of a victim of domestic violence, and it’s because of the follow-up I did, along with the officer, that we changed this person’s life. This woman was victimized by her husband to the point where he knocked her unconscious in front of the children. The officer did his normal interview and investigation, but he said to me, “You know, I don’t think I got everything from her. Would you mind giving her a call?” So I did a follow-up call, and she was more aware of what had happened because the kids told her that she lost consciousness. I went back to the officer and said, “We need to go back to the house. There is a lot more information there.” We had enough information to arrest the husband. She became more open to talking about all the years that this had been happening. She was terrified of him. We provided her with the resources to move to a safer place, along with her kids. Eventually she got a restraining order and was able to finally get out of that cycle of violence. He would still threaten her, she would report it, and he would get arrested, because there was a valid restraining order. She was very brave. She saw me one day not long ago and she ran to me and hugged me. You could tell by her look and her appearance that she had changed. She successfully has a job and she is away from this man. She was forever grateful, and I felt like I did my job. It was very touching, very touching. It was because of the officer and me that she gained her freedom. And her life.

— Steve Boyarsky is a retired educator and longtime resident of the Rogue Valley. He continues to be involved in educational and youth programs.

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