Grove City Councilwoman Maria Klemack-McGraw was 13 when she left Cuba for the United States.
"I was sent in 1961, right after the Bay of Pigs Invasion," she said, one thousands of Cuban children who fled the Caribbean island nation between 1960 and 1962 as part of Operation Peter Pan. "I came as a refuge, but I'm also an immigrant."
On Tuesday, Oct. 25, Klemack-McGraw took part in "Americans for Reform: Immigration Reform for our Economy, Faith and Security," in Washington, D.C.
Sponsored by such groups as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Farm Bureau Federation, the Partnership for a New American Economy and Bibles, Badges and Business for Immigration Reform, the event served as a gathering of more than 600 conservative leaders from around the country to advocate for immigration reform, according to a news release.
"It's very close and dear to my heart," said Klemack-McGraw, who also works as a medical interpreter for Nationwide Children's Hospital.
Prior to the event, Klemack-McGraw said she was preparing remarks for a panel discussion to tell her story.
After she arrived in America, Klemack-McGraw lived in children's homes and foster care because it was a number of years before her family was able to follow. Fidel Castro, she said, wouldn't let her father leave because he was a doctor, and her mother wouldn't leave him behind.
"I wrote to President (John) Kennedy," Klemack-McGraw said. " I wrote to the presidents of Mexico and Canada. I even wrote to the Pope."
It wasn't until the Freedom Flights of 1966 that her family made to the U.S., including her youngest brother.
"I never met him until he came," she said. "He was born after I left Cuba."
1966 was the same year her family settled in Grove City, where she said the community helped them.
"They helped us put a home together," Klemack-McGraw said. "(My mother) walked in the house and started crying. I remember that very vividly."
Klemack-McGraw and her family became citizens in 1970.
"We decided it was what we wanted to do," she said.
Her father, who got a medical license to practice in Ohio and Kentucky, died in 1977 at the age of 56 while working at a VA Hospital in Chilicothe. Her mother passed away in April at 86.
"She was my No. 1 supporter," Klemack-McGraw said. "She always went with me everywhere."
Klemack-McGraw said she wants meaningful immigration reform passed by Congress.
"I am for border control, but it has to be in a meaningful, humane way," she said.
Klemack-McGraw said she also wants something in place for the current undocumented workers that would allow them to apply for work permits and citizenship if they have families here and good records.
"A lot of the people I see here undocumented are people who came to make a better life," she said.