Suelika Cabrera Drinane • 2021 Honoree

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By Dayelin De la Cruz, 12th grader and Imagine Society activist

Suleika Cabrera Drinane was born in Santurce, Puerto Rico and raised in Spanish Harlem. Ever since she was young, she knew she always wanted to work with people. She learned particularly from her mother who was a leader on the block they lived on and her father. Suleika states, "While she took care of so many others, there was always enough food and clothes for all of us—me, my two sisters, my brother, and my father who was a merchant seaman, strict, respectful, and loving."

She is a strong advocate who has dedicated her work towards elder and women's rights. Suleika has filled multiple roles on boards and councils. In my interview with her, I asked what is it about seniors she is passionate about. Suleika said, "In our culture seniors were always seen as vital parts of the family so for me ensuring that Hispanic seniors, in particular, have access to all of the benefits and services to which they are entitled has been a passion." Suleika acknowledges the fact everyone ages, and it is important to do as much as possible to support them.

From a young age, Suleika was active in services within her community. She was involved in youth leadership activities of La Milagrosa Catholic Church at 7th Avenue and 114th Street. In addition, she participated in a local community agency, Casita Maria, and later with Aspira of New York. As a youth, Suleika received the Cardinal Spellman Youth Award from the Catholic Youth Organization at Saint Patrick's Cathedral. She says, "It meant a lot to me then and it still does." This was the first of many awards and honors. Ever since she was young, she knew what she wanted to do and she volunteered and participated in different activities as much as possible.

A quote Suleika leaves to young men and women who are activists or trying to be one is, "Stand up for what you believe and then fight for it." Her life is a prime example of this quote. When speaking of identity she says, "Never be ashamed of who you are and where you come from." Ms. Cabrera has had confidence and drive since she was young that has allowed her to accomplish and successfully help as many elders as she could. Learning more about her is a true blessing and source of inspiration.


First of all CONGRATULATIONS TO ALL OF THE DESERVING HONOREES, I AM SO PROUD TO BE AMONG YOU!I am also proud to be following in the footsteps of Clara Lemlich and to be receiving an award named for her.

I thank God every day for the life that I have led in the service of my community and my beloved SENIORS. They have always been my PASSION. It has been my privilege to serve them and their families over so many years—over four decades!

I started as a young activist in El Barrio, where I grew up. MY MOM was a tough businesswoman who gave me my sense of social justice, and love and respect for my people and my culture.

  • When I started my advocacy work in the 70's, there were no multi -lingual multi-cultural services for the elderly. Seniors of color had little or no access to resources and assistance that they desperately needed. They were invisible.
  • So, in 1978, after several years of action and advocacy, I decided to bring together a group of extraordinary people, and established the Institute for the Puerto Rican/Hispanic Elderly, Inc. and served as its Founding President and CEO until I retired in 2016.
  • The Institute became one of the largest Latino-based non-profit organization serving Hispanic and other ethnic/racial minority seniors in NY with as many as eleven senior centers around the city.
  • We were pioneers in, the area of elder, and women's rights and at the forefront in the development of programs to overcome cultural barriers and promote diversity and equity in service delivery.
  • am proud that the Institute grew into a leader in advocacy and the delivery of comprehensive multi-service operation serving New York City and the Greater Metropolitan Area with programs to overcome racial, and health disparities and demand equity and fairness not only for issues concerning the elderly but the community as a whole.
  • This led to the formation of the Hispanic Senior Action Council, an advocacy and self-help group for older adults with a network of thousands of participants
  • My mission was always to empower and improve the quality of life for the elderly and the community at large and after 40 years of struggles, changes, defeats and victories, I believe my vision was accomplished.
  • Today, I share this moment with my family. My 2 daughters, my 7 grandchildren, and the most important man in my life who understood my passion and supported my vocation and love for my seniors, my husband OF 52 YEARS, JIM DRINANE, a career public servant in his own right.
  • Finally, After all of those years of advocacy, struggle, with the scars to prove it, what I, as an advocate and fighter can say with absolute certainty is that we can never stop! We can never be silent.
  • To all of you that are younger and taking on these same struggles—We must always push, demand, and fight for our RIGHTS, for RESPECT, and for EQUITY, SIN MIEDO, FEARLESSLY; SIN PENA, UNAPOLOGETICALLY; Y CON INTEGRIDAD, WITH INTEGRITY! Our seniors, our communities of color deserve no less.
  • God Bless You ALL!


Suleika Cabrera Drinane was born in Santurce, Puerto Rico and raised in Spanish Harlem. As a young Hija de Maria in El Barrio's La Milagrosa Catholic Parish, and with her mother's strong influence, Suleika was serving her community and working with elders and their families as an advocate and organizer well before she made her mark in the larger New York City scene. Her dedication and passion makes her a highly regarded leader and a force to be reckoned with, beloved by thousands of seniors and their families who trust her and know that she is their strong advocate.

A pioneering champion of elder and women's rights, she has been in the forefront of the development of programs to overcome cultural barriers and to promote diversity in service delivery. Cabrera Drinane founded the Institute for the Puerto Rican/Hispanic Elderly (IPR/HE) in 1978. Under her leadership, the multi-service umbrella agency has become one of the city's largest social and health service agencies dedicated to seniors. She retired from the Institute in 2016. She had to be a phenomenal fighter to make this happen, lobbying and advocating for funding from city and state agencies and a wide array of other funders. She had to be a coalition builder to make this happen, as evidenced by her founding of the Hispanic Senior Action Council, a statewide advocacy group for seniors, with a membership of 6000. "When she walks into a room full of seniors, all the faces light up."

She brings people together at every turn; early in her career she worked with a national Hispanic elderly coalition to educate government officials on the needs of this growing community, and helped lead the Bilingual Resource Center of the NYC Board of Education, creating cultural diversity training programs for New York City School teachers. She has also taught in the New School for Social Research, School of Gerontology Masters Program.

Always working with the community and building coalitions, she has been an active participant and/or leader in Boards and councils in networks for the aging and women's issues and on government and nonprofit committees, including the Citizen's Committee on Aging; the Council of Senior Centers and Services of NYC; the NYC Medicaid-Managed Care Task Force and the NYS Office for the Aging Minority Task Force. That's not all. She is active on the board of trustees of Boricua College, and one of the founders of 100 Hispanic Women; New York Women's Agenda; Bonifacio Cora Senior Housing Development Corporation; and El Cemi Housing Development Fund Corporation, which provides permanent housing for the homeless elderly. She was appointed by the New York State Governor to the State's Elder Pharmaceutical Insurance Coverage (EPIC) Advisory Board. Recently, Suleika, receiving the largest number of member votes, became a member of the board of the New York State Alliance of Retired Americans (NYSARA). Awards for her leadership role are numerous, coming from government, the community, and key organizations.

Ms. Cabrera Drinane has achieved broad recognition for her leadership role, with honors and awards from government, the community, and key organizations. Among them are the Ellen Lurie Award, from the Community Service Society; the New York Women's Agenda Star Award; the Cultural Ambassador Award from the Institute for Multicultural Communications Cooperation and Development; the Building Bridges Award from the American Association for Retired People (AARP); the Women Of The Century Award from The New York City Council; the Maggie Kuhn Award from Presbyterian Senior Services; the Jefferson Award for Public Service from the American Institute for Public Service; the Volunteer Beyond Excellence "Gift of Life" Award from the New York Organ Donor Network; a Special Recognition Award from the New York City Commission On The Status of Women; the Women In Leadership Award from Queens Women's Center; the Advancing The Awareness Of Women's History Award from the Miracle Makers. She was appointed to serve as a NY Governor's Advisory Delegate to two White House Conferences on Aging and the White House Conference on Social Security. She is the recipient of the AARP New York 50th Anniversary Social Impact Award—Champion of Social Change. Most recently, the New York State Office for the Aging conferred the first ever New York State Achievement in Aging Awards to Suleika for her significant contributions to the field of aging and in particular her work in the Advancement of Aging Issues Related to Minority and Low Income Elderly, which has had both local and national impact.

Cabrera Drinane has a Masters in Social Work (MSW) degree from Fordham University School of Social Services in New York, and a Post Master's Certification in Gerontology from Hunter College School of Social Work, in New York. She is married to James Drinane. They have two grown daughters and seven grandchildren.