October 17, 2011 | last updated June 4, 2012 12:06 pm
FOCUS ON DIVERSITY

A homegrown treasure

PHOTO/PABLO ROBLES
PHOTO/PABLO ROBLES
Thea Montañez is dedicated to engaging Hartford’s residents and bettering the community.

With little money in his pocket and just a fourth-grade education, Andres Montañez traveled from Puerto Rico to Connecticut as a migrant worker in 1958. His main job was hanging tobacco leaves in a Windsor shed.

Half a century later, Montañez's daughter, Thea, works for The Hartford Financial Services Group Inc., directing hundreds of thousands of dollars to programs that educate and empower Hartford's impoverished.

The stark contrast of her family's upbringing and her influential job inspires Thea Montañez daily.

"My work is very personal to me,'' said Montañez, manager of philanthropy for The Hartford. "I hear folks all the time talk about 'the poor.' They are not a separate category of people for me. They are just folks who've had a different set of circumstances.''

Montañez, 32, oversees The Hartford's $7 million, five-year initiative to transform the Asylum Hill area through education, job training and new housing. It is a daunting task in one of Hartford's more challenged neighborhoods. But, not for Montañez.

She recently read about Eleanor Roosevelt and became an admirer, particularly of one of Roosevelt's mottos, "Do something that scares you every day."

One might argue that Montañez has taken Roosevelt's edict to the extreme. For example, despite a fear of heights, this past summer she parachuted from 10,000 feet to help raise money for the fight against multiple sclerosis.

"An incredible experience,'' she says. "You're free-falling for 40 seconds and the entire time you're thinking: 'Will my parachute deploy?'"

A few weeks after her skydiving adventure, Montañez traveled to Haiti, just 18 months after a devastating earthquake and despite warnings from doctors and government officials about cholera and kidnappings.

In a country not considered particularly progressive on women's issues, Montañez put her passion in this area to good use by volunteering at a women's shelter.

The Hartford native and 1997 Bloomfield High graduate returned to Connecticut's capital and found a city in the midst of a rebirth. New development downtown. A new branding campaign — "New England's Rising Star" — was underway. There was a vibrancy that Montañez wanted to engage.

She volunteered to work on the Rising Star campaign, parlaying that into a job as director of operations for the Connecticut Convention Center, where she worked for five years before landing at The Hartford.

"I feel very fortunate to be in a role where I can impact the community and create value on behalf of the company,'' Montañez said, adding that she can connect to the greater community as a Hartford native "whose family escaped many of those socio-economic challenges that are impacting the majority of Hartford residents.''

Andres Montañez, despite limited formal education, went on to work for 25 years at the Hartford Housing Authority, where he retired as a foreman. His wife, Anastacia, is in her 27th year at Hartford Hospital, where she works as a patient administrative assistant. In both cases, Thea Montañez said, her parents were able to advance in their careers because someone took a chance on them.

Montañez recalls adversity of her own at Syracuse University — and remembers when someone invested in her dreams when she was struggling.

Montañez had to drop out after her freshman year in 1998 because the family had exhausted its financial aid options. Her pitch for help to the university's director of financial aid resulted in a new financial aid package that allowed Montañez to continue her studies and ultimately graduate.

In her role as vice president of the Hartford Public Library board of directors, she reaffirms her commitment to education and literacy, while also serving on the board for several girls and women's organizations.

"She has so much potential,'' praised Estela López, former vice chancellor of the Connecticut State University System who has known Montañez for about four years.

"What I like about her is her commitment to the Hartford community. She knows the community and she also knows the things that make a difference. One of the concerns that we all have is what is the next generation going to do. To see her in her work and seeing the things she's doing gives me a lot of hope.''

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