Lived Values: Building a life around helping others find food, home, and financial freedom

January 12, 2024

The Blancas

More than a decade into their careers, the Blancas’ goals remain the same: to make a difference in the communities they serve. David Blancas ’09 and Michelle Zepeda ’11 met as students at AU and shared similar pasts. They both came to the U.S. from Mexico as children. They were good students in high school. And they both struggled to find the resources to pursue higher education.

As teenagers, they didn’t have the proper documentation for financial aid and couldn’t take out student loans due to their immigration status at the time. Blancas remembers crumpling up a college letter asking for a Social Security number, which he did not have, to process his application. He briefly considered going back to Mexico to attend university there.

“In my head, college was not an option for me,” recalled Blancas.

AU changed all that. With the help of high school counselors, church leaders, and family, Blancas and Zepeda both found their way to AU and to Eva Serrano, associate professor of foreign languages, who became their mentor. AU provided the financial assistance and community support for them to earn their bachelor’s degrees—Mathematics and Secondary Education for Blancas and Health Science for Zepeda. The couple credits Serrano with helping them navigate their education while creating a sense of belonging within the college community.

Blancas went on to earn his master’s degree in education from National Louis University and worked as a teacher in the Chicago Public Schools for several years. Zepeda also advanced her education, earning a master of public health from DePaul University.

Today, they both have jobs in the nonprofit sector, working to provide food, housing, and financial guidance to low-income individuals and families, many of them Latino.

Blancas is chief of equity and operations at The Neighbor Project, a nonprofit organization in downtown Aurora dedicated to helping people escape debt, save money, and purchase homes. Helping others build generational wealth through homeownership and financial empowerment is gratifying, Blancas said. He wants to share the lessons he learned from his own struggles to give others a boost.

“I could never pay back everyone who helped me for what they did, but I know I’m going to pay this forward,” he said.

Zepeda is assistant director of health and food programs at Loaves & Fishes Community Services, a nonprofit providing food and programming to low-income families living in four area counties. The Naperville-based food pantry is designed intentionally to resemble a supermarket and focuses on giving people dignity even during times of food insecurity. For Zepeda, the position offers her the opportunity to make an impact in public health, an area that has long been her passion.

“I always wanted to be able to do my part to make sure people had access to healthcare, which is what drove me to public health to begin with,” she said.

Growing up in east Aurora, Zepeda was inspired by how her own parents spent weekends volunteering at their church’s food pantry. Her current job allows this to come full circle, enabling her to use her own background and knowledge of Spanish in a way that brings comfort to the thousands seeking critical resources.

The couple said that AU is still a major part of their lives. They continue to visit campus—now with their 6-and 9-year-old children in tow to show them where they met and how they began to build their life together to help others.

AU opened the door to their future, they said.

“I felt like I got a second lease on life,” said Blancas. “And I definitely did not want to let it go to waste.”

This story is an excerpt from the fall/winter 2023 issue of AU Magazine. Click here to read the full story about five alumni spending their time, experience, and enthusiasm giving back to the communities that helped them along the way.