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SAN DIEGO — When Yadira Russo immigrated to the U.S. in 2005, she recalls feeling like a little fish in a big pond. From learning English to leaving loved ones behind, it was a cultural shock.

Now, Russo works tirelessly to make sure all feel comfortable in the pond in which they live.

“Growing up, I was taught to respect the culture in which we live and to understand obviously that we live in a conservative country where the emphasis and priority in our society is that God and family are first,” she said. “As an Ecuadorian, I have developed my own set of traditions, values and beliefs that have defined me and my unique cultural identity of which I am very proud.”

Russo is a finalist in FOX 5’s Remarkable Women 2022 initiative, an effort recognizing the valuable contributions women have made in the San Diego community and beyond. Other finalists include Dr. Rasha Roshdy and Mary Joya with one finalist yet to be named.

Of the four finalists, one will be named San Diego’s Woman of the Year and win $1,000 for a charity of choice.

In her nomination, husband Paul Russo wrote that she came to the U.S. from Ecuador with dreams of being a nun and a psychologist in her home country and “helping the poor there.” He said she gave up those dreams to be with him as he was serving in the Navy, but when she came to the U.S., she was quick to assimilate and then chart her own path in her community.

“She has given countless hours working with the depressed elderly, migrant workers and homeless veterans of our community,” he wrote. “Yadira has selflessly given her time and love to the poor within her church community. Yadira continued for many years to help not only those in need here in the U.S, but across borders as well.”

Speaking to FOX 5’s Shally Zomododi, Russo said picking up life in a new country wasn’t easy, though she believes that struggle was integral in the success she’s had in her personal and academic life. Years of dedication helped expand her English fluency and it came as she earned degrees from Palomar College and Cal State San Marcos.

When she started working in the community, Russo said her role was to provide mental health education and support to seniors and adults “in a culturally competent manner.” Soon, she was conducting focus groups and surveys as well as offering group counseling and mental health referrals.

“I was also asked to continue working with a new group which involved working with grandparents and also grandchildren,” she said. “This helped me to continue with the profession I wanted. It put me on the right path to do what I really like to do in life.

Her husband Paul notes that not only does she excel in her work but at home to children Kristen and Nicole.

“They are a true reflection of their mother,” he wrote. He adds that she never questions her place in the world, but always jumps in to ask others, ‘How can I make a difference?’

Growing up as she did, Russo said she’s learned the importance of “solidarity and support.”

“It provides me a natural sense of accomplishment and I think it gives me a sense of pride and identity too to continue with this,” she said.