Mary Carmen Muñoz is telling the story of a boy who showed up at her agency’s after-school program about 10 years ago.
His mom had to drag him to LA SED -- Latin Americans for Social and Economic Development -- where Muñoz works as executive director, and convince him to give it a chance.
“He thought it was boring,” Muñoz said, “then he said, ‘Well, it’s more boring at home.’”
He started to come every day, getting exposed to reading by the small library LA SED has thanks to donations. That broadened his intellectual curiosity, and when he hit ninth grade, he’d come back to spend time with the younger kids. Then, a few years later, when the opportunity arose to do a college program at the University of Michigan, he didn’t want to do that either.
Muñoz and the other leaders at LA SED told him to try it. He went up to Ann Arbor to see the campus and took a leap. At this point in the story, Muñoz slips, using his first name, then catches herself.
“Don’t use his name,” she says, “he’ll be embarrassed.”
We won’t. But stories like his are what make Muñoz so proud to do her job.
“He now attends University of Michigan-Ann Arbor,” she says. “And that is an incredible story of a young man who is talented. He’s got a real chance.”
Muñoz, a long-standing leader in Detroit’s Hispanic community, has been named the fourth Game Changers honoree of Hispanic Heritage Month by the Detroit Red Wings, Detroit Tigers and Comerica Bank.
“To be referred to as a Game Changer in the same breath as Anthony Benavides and Angela Reyes is an honor,” Muñoz said. “They are two cornerstones in the community.”
Muñoz was brought up in southwest Detroit, her mother one of 16 children. Aunts and uncles were dotted all over the neighborhood.
“We always said as the Muñoz family, you give back to the community you were raised in,” she said. “You were born to make a positive difference. And in this world, when you leave this world ... leave a positive footprint.
“That’s how I was raised.”
That philosophy has been evident throughout Muñoz’s career. She first worked as the assistant director of the Michigan Minority Business Development Council before launching Muñoz Machine Products with her mom in 1984. The two of them built that company up, creating jobs for the Hispanic community, before selling it in 1998.
In her job today, Muñoz does, in short, everything. LA SED’s programs cover translation, second-language classes, citizenship classes, helping seniors navigate Medicare and Medicaid, a community enrichment program focusing on math and reading comprehension and everything else in between.
During the pandemic, when southwest Detroit was hit particularly hard, LA SED helped educate the Hispanic community on how to avoid COVID-19, provided popup testing, helped kids navigate the challenges of virtual learning and provided vaccinations for over 1,500 people.
“As executive director, I cannot run this organization without the team members I have working with me,” Muñoz said. “My community navigator, my coordinators in services, the clients themselves. They come here for help and then they want to know, what can I do? What can I do to help someone? And so many of them come back. … That is the true joy of this job.”
Sometimes, something as simple as an offer to take out the trash can spark that joy. Clients often tell her those offers aren’t enough to pay it forward.
Muñoz couldn’t disagree more.
“[To give] your time, to take out our trash, thank you,” she said. “We can never say thank you enough.”