LAKE WORTH BEACH, Fla. — You could call him a champion for the migrant community in Lake Worth Beach. Many in the Guatemalan-Mayan community describe him as their hero. Father Frank O'Loughlin, co-founder of the Guatemalan Maya Center, has devoted decades of service to the migrant community.
In celebration of Hispanic Heritage month, WPTV shares his legacy of love and compassion for the local Latin American community.
The year was 1965 when a young priest from Ireland arrived in the United States.
"You don't want to have a 23-year-old priest," O'Loughlin said. "It's a joke. But that's what I was, a 23-year-old priest."
Working with civil rights activist Cesar Chavez in Miami, O'Loughlin helped organize a boycott of grapes and lettuce in response to the abuses migrant workers were facing in the fields.
"Thirty-five thousand people came out on a Sunday afternoon in support of the migrants," he said.
That was the beginning of what would be a lifetime of advocacy.
He started a congregation in Indiantown, but not just for the Mexican families. He also did it for the Cuban families, and he learned Creole for the Haitian migrant workers.
"I would have six services, six masses, in a weekend," O'Loughlin said. "As soon as the drums started rolling, babies, you know, a foot-and-a-half high with diapers bigger than their heads and bigger their bodies, would come out and they would all dance. The joy of all of that you cannot conceive of."
"When I met Father Frank, I knew," Guillermo Carrasco, who helped O'Loughlin start programs at the Guatemalan Maya Center, recalled.
Carrasco was a CEO of a major agriculture company in the 1970s. After a tragic event in his life, he was seeking guidance and went to O'Loughlin's church for the first time.
"It is very funny because I was flying a plane back and forth from the farms — it was a small Cessna — and he says, 'I have to go to Miami. I cannot really see you,' and I said, 'OK, you want me to fly you to Miami?" Carrasco said.
They were two strangers in a plane. Carrasco jokingly said he tested the father's faith that day, which was the beginning of a 44-year friendship and counting.
"I thought maybe I could, you know, do something for the community," Carrasco said about how he decided to leave that career behind and go into social work to help the migrant community.
O'Loughlin noticed a growing need for prenatal care for the Guatemalan-Mayan community in Palm Beach County.
"The neonatal unit at St. Mary's (Medical Center) was totally swamped with newborn Guatemalan babies who had problems," O'Loughlin said. "The women would not go to the hospital."
The Guatemalan Maya Center was born nearly 30 years ago, primarily to offer prenatal care to migrant women.
Education became his next mission.
"We founded a little school called Hope Rural School, and Hope Rural School has been a triumph," O'Loughlin said.
In 2011, Escuelita Maya VPK and preschool programs were established. Soon after, that's when Olga Perez first came to know the Guatemalan Maya Center.
"They've helped me," Olga Perez said in Spanish. "Not only me, so many families."
Perez said aside from homework help and after-school care for her children, the center gave the children experiences during summer camp that the working Guatemalan-Mayan parents could never give them.
"We couldn't take our kids to the beach or water parks or even parks," she said. "We honestly didn't have the time because we were always working."
After all these decades, WPTV asked O'Loughlin what he has learned from the migrant community.
"It's the astonishing transformation of yourself because of the company you're keeping," he said.
Surviving heart attacks, a stroke and making it to his 80th birthday, O'Loughlin said there's still so much to do.
"It's got a ways to go, so there's a new generation at the wheel now," he said.
Where people see migrants at the border or farmworkers in the fields O'Loughlin has always seen hardworking families just trying to feed their children.
"People on the move is a fact of life," he said.
It started as a refuge for the Guatemalan-Mayan community, but over the years, the center has become an international resource for people from all different countries settling in Palm Beach County.
The Guatemalan Maya Center in Lake Worth Beach now serves more than 1,000 families each month from more than 28 countries.
"It will grow because he will leave this legacy that we will always respect," Carrasco said.
That's the legacy of one man who has touched so many lives.
"The truth is, he has been a hero for the immigrant people," Perez said in Spanish.
Right now, the Guatemalan Maya Center is fundraising to expands its programs for migrant families and children. If you'd like to help, go to https://www.guatemalanmaya.org/donate.