Puentes de Salud's Steady Hand
As executive director of the organization, Orfelina Feliz Payne promotes the health and wellness of the growing Latine community in South Philly.
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Orfelina Feliz Payne is a 1st generation American, born and raised in the South Bronx to a Dominican father and Puerto Rican mother.
At 14 years old her father was sent to the Bronx to work to help care for his siblings who were back in the Dominican Republic.
Feliz Payne’s mother raised her as a single mother, but Feliz Payne was able to build a good relationship with her father after she became an adult.
Before this, she says that he was in and out of her life, but left a large impact.
He ran several businesses focused on the needs of Spanish-speaking immigrants. Feliz Payne wanted to manage one of his businesses, but he wanted her to become a doctor.
“My role at Puentes now is a combination [of] my vision and his vision for my life,” said Feliz Payne.
She had a difficult upbringing, growing up in poverty.
As a child, Feliz Payne’s first language was English, but she learned Spanish because it was her family’s first language.
“As many first-generation children do, I served as an interpreter for interacting with all the social systems in our lives — medical systems, educational systems, etc,” she said during an interview with AL DÍA.
Feliz Payne continued, “There’s a saying for us first-generation children of Spanish-speaking families: ‘Ni de aqui, ni de alla’ meaning ‘not from here, not from there.’”
She explained that this phrase reflects the challenge of not feeling like you belong in the United States because you were raised with traditional Latine values, but also not feeling Latine enough because you weren’t born in a Spanish-speaking country.
Finding Strength Through Hardships
One of the most important things Feliz Payne has learned from her mother and her culture is faith.
“I think I am here by God's grace and God's grace only because of all of the circumstances were stacked against children that looked like me, in the South Bronx during that time,” she said.
She grew up in the early 80s during the Bronx Burnings. This is a period of time between the 1970s and 1980s when buildings were burned down on purpose, affecting 80% of buildings during the decade. Feliz Payne grew up during the tail end of it.
“There were just a lot of empty buildings. People were setting buildings on fire on purpose for the insurance. They would pay people to set buildings on fire so they [could] get insurance money and then split the insurance money. It just ran rampant in the Bronx at a time. So it was chaotic. Very chaotic,” she continued.
There was also a lot of drug use. She compares it to an early-days Kensington.
Feliz Payne credits her upbringing and experiences for her lifelong interest in human development.
One of the other reasons was the Puerto Rican therapist she had when she was younger, Miss Mundo.
“She was the first medical professional I had interacted with that was Latina, as well. She spoke Spanish and she understood our culture and background. And so the relationship that our family developed with her was very different than what we had with any other medical professionals. So, she was my first exposure to a different modality of care,” said Feliz Payne.
Discovering a Path
In high school, Feliz Payne took a psychology class “kind of on a whim,” she said.
“I was more so drawn in and was able to attach then a name to the interest that I've had over the years, which is the study of human behavior, the study of people, why people make decisions the way that they do. Psychology has been really helpful and understanding that,” she explained.
To Feliz Payne, school was a way to escape the cycle of poverty, food insecurity, and trauma. It was also somewhere she excelled.
“Many of [my] peers in high school were navigating through the same experiences, trying to find ways to excel as first-generation children to immigrant parents and education was our outlet,” she explained.
“I knew that I would leave New York to find myself for college as soon as I could, and I did,” she added.
She ended up studying psychology as an undergrad at Penn State. Afterward, she worked for a year in New York, before realizing that she wanted a change and coming back to Pennsylvania where she felt comfortable.
She then went to Gwynedd Mercy University and earned a Master’s in Business. Her goal after completing this degree was to return to the Bronx. Life, however, had other plans and she ended up getting married, starting a family, and buying her first house in Philadelphia.
Feliz Payne also received a Business Process Management Certification from Villanova University and Six Sigma Green Belt Certification.
First, Only, Different
In 2004, Feliz Payne started to work at Community Behavioral Health (CBH), an organization within the Department of Behavioral & Intellectual Disabilities (DBID), that works to expand mental health services to Philadelphia.
She worked there for 17-and-a-half years in several positions, including Program Evaluation Specialist and Director of Member Services.
She became the first and only Latina Director within the department. By the time she’d left, she had also been the first and only Latina Senior Director. To explain how being the first felt, she referenced a phrase from “The Year of Yes” by Shonda Rhimes.
“She coins this term, F.O.D, which means first, only, and different. She talks about what it feels like to be the first, to be the only, and to be the different person in the room. And how it provides this unique perspective, but it also is an extra sense of responsibility that you don’t even notice that you’re accounting for as you’re in those spaces,” Feliz Payne said.
This is something that she took very seriously. Feliz Payne asked herself how she’d want to experience care as a program participant and how she had experienced care as one.
“Even in situations where I really didn’t want attention called to me or want to have some difficult conversations at times I made myself do it because I knew it represented the greater community and needed to be done,” she said.
Her work at Puentes de Salud has introduced her to like-minded people.
"We’re fortunate in that the staff at Puentes have these unique experiences that point to that same responsibility. There is an unmatched drive and passion for the work we do to empower the community," she added.
Feliz Payne also served as the co-chair of Disparity Mitigation and Language Access Services. In this role, she found a passion in engaging underrepresented parts of the community and ensuring information coming from her department was shared in a way that made sense to the community members.
While at the DBiDS she was involved with the now-defunct Employee Resource Group (ERG), “VOCES.” It was started by her and her colleagues talking about some of the disparities they saw in the community. These talks also came at the height of things turning in Kensington.
The first area of focus the group had was education, which was ingrained in the work that they did. They were able to build partnerships in the community and attended community meetings.
The group ran into some challenges in terms of the amount of work they could do while maintaining their regular jobs and ways to help that weren’t already covered by one of the department’s divisions.
Puentes de Salud
Her work at the department was going well and she had a great team, but she felt that she lacked vision for the department’s future. She wanted to continue working in health and wellness in the Latine community, but in a more direct way than her role at CBH allowed.
Puentes de Salud, “a nonprofit that promotes the health and wellness of Philadelphia’s rapidly growing Latinx immigrant population through high-quality health care, innovative educational programs, and community building,” was everything she wanted.
So when the role of Executive Director became available in 2021, she applied. Feliz Payne even applied a second time just to make sure her application was seen.
She had heard about Puentes from her previous work and had watched the HBO documentary, Clínica de Migrantes. The 2016 documentary by Maxim Pozdorovkin follows the Puentes team as they navigate challenges and provide care to Philadelphia’s undocumented immigrant community.
Feliz Payne initially wasn’t sure if she would be a potential candidate, knowing the competition, but after doing the interviews and meeting the team, she knew it was the right fit.
She officially became the organization’s new executive director in January 2022.
Feliz Payne reflected on how Puentes is helping Philadelphia’s immigrant community handle the same challenges she faced in her own life.
Children that look like her, especially ones from immigrant families, have the same circumstances stacked against them that she had back in the 80s.
She also thought of the people she went to high school with who used education as an outlet, commenting that she was fortunate to grow up in a diverse area like New York.
“Depending on where you live, you may not have access to people or resources in your native language. That’s why the Puentes programs are so important, Puentes provides culturally competent support in the form of health, education, food, art and behavioral access to community members who otherwise may miss out," she said.
Greatest Achievements and Challenges
Her greatest achievement at Puentes is bringing the staff together after COVID. During the pandemic, people were siloed into their different divisions so they could focus on getting their work done.
“One of the things I’m really proud of now is that there’s unity amongst the divisions [because] they know each other more,” Feliz Payne said.
They have been working on things like leadership skills, capacity building, and strategy building.
“It’s been really nice to see the staff themselves come together and see each other. And be able to acknowledge the work that they’re doing as a whole, to be able to see the big picture of the organization,” she added.
Her greatest challenge is funding since Puentes gets all of its funding from grants and donors. They also get some city funding for vaccines. All of Puentes’ programs are centered on community voice so funding is sought based on community needs.
During her career, her biggest success was when she got the title of Director of Member Services.
“When I was offered the position, I remember the email went out to all [the] staff and people just erupted in cheers,” Feliz Payne said.
“And that was the coolest feeling ever because it was a moment of validation where I knew people had felt and seen and understood all that I’ve been trying to do in my career up until that time. That was really powerful,” she explained.
She counts being selected for her current role as another big success for a similar reason; getting these roles is a visible achievement for all of the behind-the-scenes and invisible work that goes into these director-level roles.
The biggest challenge she faced during her career has been figuring out how to navigate the politics of the corporate ladder while remaining true to herself.
“Being able to walk into rooms, confident with curly hair — in spaces where big, curly hair isn’t a thing — or tattoos or earrings that are large hoop earrings. Things that people typically see as nontraditional. And being able to walk into a space confident enough, knowing that I have the background, I have the experience, I have the knowledge. I can walk in being fully myself in any situation and being okay with it,” she said.
“Even when you are the F.O.D., first, only, different,” Feliz Payne concluded.