Story By John Murray

When your job is to provide services to a vulnerable population it helps if you have a background that allows you to relate to your client’s experiences.

Consider Tomas Olivo, the Initiative Director of Riba Aspira Career Academy in the south end of Waterbury.

Tomas was born three decades ago in the city of Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic. The Dominican Republic shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, and is roughly three times the size of Connecticut, with three times the population at 10.6 million people.

Shortly after his birth Tomas and his mother moved to a barrio in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where his father (a Dominican-American) was living.

“It was very dangerous,” Olivo said. “There were shootings, gangs, drugs. I remember my mom used to grab us (Tomas and his sister, who was later born in Puerto Rico) and dive on the floor when the shootings happened.”

When Tomas was ten years old his father retired, and the family moved back to the Dominican Republic.

“The neighborhood that we lived in was safe and I was in the street playing from the time we got home from school, all the way until 8 or 9pm,” Olivo said. “Kids were playing everywhere, and all the neighbors had their doors open. You could walk into anyone’s house and ask for water or juice or whatever.”

What were the kids playing?

“Baseball,” Olivo said. “The Dominican Republic is the land of baseball (there are currently 99 Dominicans playing Major League Baseball in the U.S.). We used to make balls out of socks. We’d put a rock in the middle, then paper, then whatever we could find and wrap it into a ball. Then we’d grab sticks and play.”

Children playing baseball in the streets of Santo Domingo. Getty Images Photograph

The kids played with no gloves, and anyone hitting the hand-made baseball over the Olivo home celebrated an automatic home run.

Several years later Tomas’s parents got divorced and his mother brought her two children to Hartford, Connecticut.

“My mom always wanted us to come to the United States so that we could go to school here and have better opportunities for better paying jobs.,” Olivo said. “That was her goal.”

When Tomas began attending Hartford Public High School in 2005, he spoke no English

“It was a big cultural challenge coming from the Dominican Republic to the United States,” Olivo said. “I was committed to learning English. I used to get out of school and go to the library and take out movies in English, with English subtitles. I would listen and read at the same time, and it became easier for me to start to understand.”

Tomas initially enrolled in English as a Second Language (ESL) classes but was frustrated that many of his classmates were not as interested in mastering the new language. He quickly decided to take all of his classes in English to accelerate his comprehension of the language.

“It was challenging,” Olivo said, “but the hard work paid off.”

In 2008 Olivo moved to Waterbury and attended UConn, and eventually graduated from graduate school. Olivo then worked for Catholic Charities in Waterbury where the non-profit helped with rental assistance, diapers and essential goods, and he helped run a food pantry. Olivo also helped launch the Fatherhood Initiative in Waterbury. Things were going well for Tomas Olivo, and then a unique opportunity opened up for him, and more importantly, for the community, when Riba Aspira Career Academy burst upon the scene.

Riba Aspira was created as part of the Connecticut Working Cities Challenge by a coalition of partners that included the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, Waterbury Neighborhood Housing Services, the Hispanic Coalition of Greater Waterbury, Webster Bank and the United Way.

The intent was to use nearly $1 million to create jobs and address the economic and racial/ethnic inequalities that existed in the River Baldwin neighborhood, the poorest section of Waterbury.

The 3505-census tract has 2500 people living in it, had a 23% unemployment rate and 43.7% of the people live below the poverty line. The mission of Riba Aspira was to cut the unemployment rate in ten years from 23% to 12% by helping residents obtain proper training and education.

Riba Aspira offers a childcare provider class so students can become licensed childcare providers and operate their own business.

Riba Aspira has an excellent ESL program that helps guide students into jobs through partnerships with IMTI (learning a trade) and Naugatuck Valley Community College. The program is funded, has childcare assistance, computers, and space inside 233 Mill Street in the South End of Waterbury.

And they’ve already had some success.

Around the time Olivo was hired a young woman came in exploring ways Riba Aspira might be able to help her. She was renting a room inside an apartment for her and her six-month old baby. She was working at a fast-food chain restaurant making minimum wage. She had no car and was having childcare struggles.

She enrolled in a Certified Nurses Aide program at Riba Aspira and had free childcare provided. After she completed the program Olivo made several calls to Waterbury Hospital to try and get her an interview, and she eventually landed a job.

“I lost touch with her for about six months and then she called and was so thankful for what we did for her,” Olivo said. “She was doing great. She was actually looking into continuing her education, which Waterbury Hospital offers their employees.”

She was earning really good money and she had a car and an apartment, and she had childcare security for her baby.

“She was so thankful, and her story really hit my heart,” Olivo said.

Riba Aspira Career Academy graduates are better prepared to take control of their lives.

Riba Aspira is under the umbrella of the Hispanic Coalition of Greater Waterbury. Olivo said Riba Aspira will help anyone in the city that reaches out for help. For more information call 1-203-527-6385 or check out

If you are interested in taking an ESL class at Riba Aspira or want help trying to connect to training and possible job opportunities, give them a call.

Tomas Olivo has come a long way from that dangerous barrio in San Juan. He taught himself English at the age of 14, graduated from UConn, and is now reaching out a helping hand to assist some of the most vulnerable residents in Waterbury.

“We can’t help everyone,” Olivo said. “But if we can’t directly help then we will try and connect people to services to help them better themselves. This is very rewarding work.”