Joan Swanson Velasquez ’63

2008 Distinguished Citizen Award

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Joan Swanson Velasquez graduated from Macalester with highest honors, then earned her master’s degree at Case Western Reserve and her Ph.D. in social work at the University of Minnesota. She also served in the Peace Corps in Cochabamba, Bolivia, where she opened a daycare center, taught English, and met her husband Segundo.

In St. Paul, Velasquez was a Ramsey County social worker, and ultimately director of research and evaluation. In the mid-1980s, she co-led the team implementing the nation’s first electronics benefits system (EBS), which allowed low-income clients to swipe a card to pay for their food. More respectful of clients and less subject to fraud than food stamps, EBS was honored by the Ford Foundation.

But most people know Joan and Segundo Velasquez as the founders of Mano a Mano, a nonprofit organization that each year collects and transports to Bolivia 250,000 pounds of medical equipment and supplies otherwise headed for landfills. Bolivia, tied with Haiti for poorest country in the western hemisphere, saves lives with this used equipment. Mano a Mano now has expanded its reach, building 82 clinics and 30 schools, and recently its third agricultural reservoir, providing water not only for people, but for the crops that sustain them.

"Joan is an inspiration to anyone who works to provide health care to those in need," says classmate Wayne Brezina, who nominated her. "It’s her life’s passion."

Joan has been recognized as an outstanding alumna of the University of Minnesota School of Social Work, a co-madre of Chicanos/Latinos Unidoes en Servicio, and, with Segundo, as KARE-11 TV’s Volunteers of the Year.