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  • Writer's pictureWEPRA

Hispanic Heritage awardee defines success as helping others

When the flag of Puerto Rico was raised at City Hall recently to recognize National Hispanic Heritage Month, the spirit and pride of one woman in the crowd may have been lifted higher than others around her.

Awilda Colombani, a 60-year-old Puerto Rican immigrant and longtime businesswoman in the city, was honored by the Westfield Puerto Rican Association for embodying Hispanic values by dedicating herself to her community, church and family.

Colombani received the Recognition of Excellence award, which has been given to distinguished citizens from Puerto Rico living in Westfield for the last 28 years.

“It made me proud to be Puerto Rican, to represent my community and to show others we Hispanics are not here to take from the government,” said Colombani. “There’s a lot of us here that have worked very hard all their lives to become who we are, and to represent our people.”

Coming to Westfield

Born in Puerto Rico, Colombani came to the mainland United States with her parents when she was 9 months old. The family settled in Hartford and lived there for 22 years before moving to Westfield.

Colombani has been a hair stylist and entrepreneur for decades, opening her first salon in Westfield in 1983. She now owns A Slight Edge Salon on Elm Street. The seat her clients take is much like a confessional, with Colombani as their mentor and counselor.

“They speak about their lives and trials. There’s some interchange about faith—sharing hopes and dreams,” said Colombani. “When people leave, they feel like they got more than just a haircut or color, and that’s very important to me. They tell me I’ve lifted their spirit.”

Puerto Ricans began settling in Westfield during the 1950s. WEPRA has recognized one of those pioneering families every year for the past three decades. Now the group is saluting younger individuals who stand as pillars of their community.

A large crowd watched as Colombani received her recognition. People looking on were city officials, her friends, family and clients.

“It was heartwarming to see everyone who came to honor her,” said Agma Sweeney, WEPRA president. “She’s played an important role in the community and the response from people who came to watch her receive the award was much more than any of us could anticipate.”

Learning to share

Colombani’s life hasn’t been free of challenges. She has six siblings and had to learn the importance of sharing resources and her parents’ attention. She has a family of her own now — three children, a stepson and a husband on disability, which means they survive on her earnings alone.

She and her family lived in subsidized housing before they could afford to buy a home of their own. Somehow, on limited means, she put three children through college. One is now a structural engineer, a second has graduated with a doctoral degree in physical therapy and her third is pursuing a master’s degree in psychology.

“I gave my kids the best I had. There was much I couldn’t do for them, but they are my pride and joy. Helping them is the most important thing I’ve done with my life,” said Colombani.

Making the cut

Things weren’t any easier for her in the business world. Her first salon was doing well after 24 years in business. Then the city took the building by eminent domain, forcing her to start over on Elm Street. She sees her own clients but also rents space to women trying to start their own hair styling businesses. One is Latina, the other is a non-Hispanic white. Colombani mentors them both.

“I want to give them the opportunity to own their own businesses and not have to work for someone else because we don’t always get paid what we’re worth,” she said. “When we have our own business, we feel better about ourselves. I want to help others become entrepreneurs. That is the model behind what I’m doing.”

Colombani is an active member of St. Mary’s Church in Westfield, where she has led youth groups and is now coaching a group of women in their 30s and 40s. She’s on the church council and is a lector.

There are many ways to define success. Here’s how Colombani sees it: “I don’t measure success by the volume of business I have or how much money I make — but by the people I serve. Many people look at success as how wealthy you are. I look at wealth differently because to me, it’s about how you treat people and what kind of a person you are.” Original Link:

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