Volunteer gives countless hours to help those in need

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

When her brown eyes meet those of someone in need, a Bible verse echoes in her thoughts.

“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” — Matthew 25:35

“Is this you God, I wonder, is this you asking for my help,” explained Imelda Solano. “I ask and think, who am I to say no?”

Solano, 48, grew up in the Catholic schools of Lima, Peru. The motto “servian,” which means “to serve,” is a mentality woven deeply into her being, as inherent as her blood type or bone structure. She sees herself as a servant — a happy, determined one.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Solano, of Brookhaven, has worked for the Archdiocese of Atlanta for 14 years, first as the Hispanic ministry coordinator at the Cathedral of Christ the King, then in the Office of Life, Dignity and Justice. Aside from her altruistic work duties, she volunteers countless hours a week with Saint Vincent de Paul Society, an international volunteer organization in the Catholic Church, as well as Christmas Connections: Adopt-A-Family, and the Compassion Kitchen Project. She is a consummate connector, linking those in need to those who can provide. People seek “the lady at the church,” her reputation a testament to goodness, her assistance like gold. Those who bear witness to her selflessness consider her more saint than servant.

“Saint Imelda, that is what we call her,” said Isabel Rice, co-founder of the Compassion Kitchen Project. “I’ve known her 15 years and she’s never wavered. She has a heart for service with a boots-on-the-ground approach. She’s under bridges, on the side of the road, she listens to every story from veterans, the homeless, single moms. She believes in the dignity of life and offers people hope, respect, and joy.”

When the Compassion Kitchen Project launched at the height of the pandemic, Rice called her friend Solano to see if she could help link restaurants to those who are food insecure. Solano responded immediately, establishing more than half the distribution locations, from a trailer park in Jonesboro, to the Basilica downtown. She personally distributes meals every Tuesday and Thursday. When Christmas Connections: Adopt-A-Family began 14 years ago, they provided gifts for 75 families. The program now serves over 550 families, in great thanks, Rice said, to Solano.

“Imelda was also the one who brought vaccination sites to the local Hispanic community,” said Rice. “She organized a COVID vaccine clinic at the Christ the King Mission on Buford Highway. She scheduled all the dates, had a translator on hand to educate people and answer questions. Imelda even speaks to and trains other volunteers, down to the nuances of how to interact with vulnerable people. She is amazing.”

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Solano is passionate about the Hispanic community.

“I am an immigrant,” said Solano. “I know how it feels to be by yourself in a new country, nowhere to turn. My prayer is that if someone seeks help, I can be the one to provide it.”

Though her entire biological family still lives in Peru, Solano has found an extended family in those she serves. She’s been invited to first communions, baby showers, and baptisms.

“Oh, she is my sister,” said Alejandra Gutierrez. “When my parents needed immigration lawyers, she found one. If we are ever short on paying a bill, she finds the money. If we are sick, she brings us food. For Thanksgiving, she calls to be sure we have enough food and that my children have all they need – for 15 years now. Whenever I thank her, she stops me, tells me not to even think about it because we are family. She is a blessing. I think God has a plan for everybody. I’m so thankful he made her part of ours.”

Solano’s phone number has been passed like warm dinner rolls through the Hispanic community. She answers her phone at all hours from the Brookhaven apartment she shares with her two rescue dogs. She has changed her phone number twice due to incessant calls, but still leaves her ringer on each night. She does not complain about exhaustion, she is not easily overwhelmed. She champions others’ challenges until she finds a resolution.

Years ago, a woman arrived from Mexico and approached Solano for help in finding her son. The last the woman knew, he was living in Atlanta, then moved to Los Angeles. The woman could not speak English, nor could she read or write. Solano was determined to help her. After months of work, Solano discovered the woman’s son had been homeless in L.A. and passed away.

“It was terrible news, but I gave her closure. She returned to Mexico, her mission was complete,” said Solano, emotion trembling in her soft voice. “I kept thinking about my mother, hoping someone would do the same for me. I had to help for the sake of all mothers.”

When Christmas comes, Solano will be sure to phone her mother in Lima, she’ll spend time with her local “family” and friends, maybe cook, go to a movie, read. And, of course, she’ll be at the church, where everyone knows they can find her, Saint Imelda.


Was someone kind to you this year? As we head into the holiday season, we’d like to hear kind acts that you experienced this year. What did this mean to you? Or did you commit to being kinder in this challenging year, and if so, what did you do? What kind of response did you receive? We’ll be sharing some of these stories as we head into the season of giving. If this speaks to you, send us an email. Include your name, which we will use, your city, and contact info to AJC-InspireAtlanta@ajc.com.