Aida Calvopina: A life of all-conquering love

Posted on Wed, 03/01/2017 - 10:30am

By Tracy Poyser

Those words in the headline are big words – but in the case of our neighbor Aida Calvopina, they’re no exaggeration. Aida’s cheerful presence has been a given at almost all of Malibu East’s social events over the years, from behind-the-scenes organizing to helping serve food at our scrumptious buffets, especially her delicious home-baked lemon cake.

I knew she grew up in Ecuador; both of us had been part of an immigrant exhibit at the Edgewater Historical Society last year. And, she had told me that her volunteering went way beyond our walls – she admits that she’s always been a people person. I was intrigued about what brought her to the U.S. and our own vertical United Nations, so she invited me to tea at her home last month – a few days before her 85th birthday (she still calls herself a “junior senior”). I hope her story will touch your hearts as much as it did mine.

Aida was born in Quito, Ecuador, in February 1932 as the oldest of five siblings – three boys and two girls – raised by their mother with the support of an aunt. The close-knit family lived comfortably in a good Quito neighborhood. In the footsteps of her mom, Aida became a strong, independent young woman and had even started a small business of her own. Then, in her early 20s, she met the love of her life – Oswaldo (Ozzie) Calvopina, who was five years older and from a different neighborhood. Sadly, her mother was totally opposed to the match, and Aida tried to find solace by visiting a family friend in Chicago.

Knowing very little English, she arrived with a broken heart at Midway Airport in April 1955 (the same year that O’Hare opened to commercial air traffic). But, to her delight, her Ozzie followed her to Chicago only 3½ months later. So that nothing else could come between them, they got married in the Ecuadorian consulate the Monday after his arrival, with a church wedding a bit later. Sadly, Aida’s mother did not forgive easily, and it took her 11 years to speak to her daughter again. Aida kept in close touch with all her siblings. Both of her brothers moved to the United States also, although the older one moved back to Ecuador where he became a partner at Price Waterhouse.

Aida and Ozzie both worked hard to build their own American dream. He learned bookbinding at the Newberry Library, where he knew more than some of the librarians, and later switched to the electricity field. Aida, who had almost died during childbirth in 1956, didn’t start working outside the home until their only son was 14 years old (she now has two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren). Having strengthened her English skills in restaurant work, she made a stellar 25-year career in banking, starting at Lakeview Bank and then Continental Bank, where she was able to use her Spanish skills as an interpreter for Hispanic customers. Continental Bank even sent her to Mundelein College and paid her tuition to study communication as she advanced in her banking career.

After 22 years in the Addison/Damen neighborhood, Aida and Ozzie decided to move to Malibu East in 1977, attracted by the location, the building amenities, the security and the multicultural flair of our community. But, just short of their 40th wedding anniversary, tragedy hit the loving couple in January 1996 when Ozzie died of a virulent stomach cancer that had been in remission for three years. Aida was devastated and fell into a deep depression. She tried to find healing through her church community (St. Gertrude’s) and therapy support, but for four years, nothing seemed to console her until the year 2000 when a therapist suggested that volunteer work would bring her spirit back to life.

Ever since then, honoring her Ozzie’s love by helping others became Aida’s true calling and “brought her back to sanity.” It just so happened that Mather Lifeways Foundation – new to our area – was looking for volunteers in 2000 also. They accepted her on the spot, and she has worked “wherever I was needed” for 17 years, especially at the monthly Mather Edgewater luncheons, the first event that she helped with and where she serves as “ambassador” to this day.

She also signed up with the Hull House R.S.V.P. senior volunteer program (it closed five years ago). She pitched all over – causes such as the American Cancer Society, Channel 11, The Children’s Museum, the local MS Society chapter, an arthritis organization, Chicago heart research, and St. Gertrude’s “Heart to Heart” project helping the elderly of Edgewater, regardless of religious affiliation, to remain independent in their homes.

“Every project was a learning experience, and I haven’t stopped learning yet,” she smiled. Her commitment to each group lasted anywhere from five to 20 years.

She especially remembers Equip for Equality (EFE), an advocacy organization for people with disabilities, where she conducted a survey project gathering information on the disability community’s interests and concerns and assisted the development team with fundraising and special events. “People remember me by my accent, and then they donate more,” she quips. In gratitude, EFE honored Aida with its 2004 Public Citizen’s Award. Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust, where she volunteered for 10 years, is another favorite memory, especially their “Tools for Education” and “Letters to Santa.”

Of course, there were and are a bunch of fun projects also, for Mather as well as our Malibu East Social Committee led by Sandy Chaet, who relies on Aida immensely. Our longtime residents may remember those twice-a-year casino outings to Joliet for 50 people per trip, which Aida organized for seven years. She admits that the outings didn’t make her rich either. For the past few years, she’s taken charge of Malibu East’s monthly Thursday afternoon discussion group in the Community Room (at 2 p.m. the third Thursday of each month, except in July and August), where everyone’s welcome.

Whether it’s through her love for kids, her compassion for adults and people in need, her friendship for neighbors or her dedication to church and family, she’s transformed the grief and enduring love for her Oswaldo into a force that has made a difference for thousands. I’m sure she’s a shining example of resilience and enduring loyalty to her entire extended family both in the U.S. and back in Ecuador.

“I can say I fulfilled the American dream,” Aida said, referring more to the pride she feels in her family than to any material gain she has achieved.

Please don’t hesitate to talk to her in the elevator or at our next social event, especially if giving back is in your line of vision. Hugs are OK, too!