Former refugee, Ann Arbor small business owner pays it forward with nonprofit

“What can we do? We must do something.”

Sylvia Nolasco-Rivers at the Pilar's Benefit at White Lotus farm. (Scott Stewart, Scott Stewart Photography)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Pilar’s Tamales is more than just its food.

Owned by Sylvia Nolasco-Rivers and her family, the restaurant is attached to Pilar’s Foundation, a philanthropic organization that has been quietly giving back to the Washtenaw County and global community for years.

Although founded by Nolasco-Rivers back in 2019, it wasn’t until recently that the organization received official 501(c)(3) status.

The new status makes the Ann Arbor-based foundation a charitable nonprofit organization recognized by the IRS. This means that donations to the foundation are now considered tax-exempt.

“While a 501(c)(3) designation marks an important milestone for Pilar’s Foundation, it doesn’t change the drive and determination we’ve had to make a difference in our community and in our world–to continue the work we have been doing already,” foundation officials said in a release.

The designation also helps the organization partner with local organizations that share its mission to support vulnerable community members. Donations can be made here.

Sylvia Nolasco-Rivers at the Pilar's Benefit at White Lotus farm. (Scott Stewart Photography)

Nolasco-Rivers came to the United States from El Salvador in the 80s as a refugee herself. She started fundraising 20 years ago after seeing the devastation in her former home country caused by a 7.6 earthquake in January 2001.

“I remember seeing the images on television of a little girl standing in the ruins, and saying to my husband, Joe, ‘What can we do? We must do something,’” she said in a release.

Since then, the couple has raised tens of thousands of dollars for more than 12 local and international crises.

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On Sunday, March 27, Pilar’s Foundation will hold its first official nonprofit fundraiser at Zion Lutheran Church, 1501 W. Liberty St. in Ann Arbor.

Between 3-6 p.m., community members can pick up orders of 2-12 (or more) vegan or chicken tamales ordered in advance of the event. Meals come with curtido salad, casa miento and salsa. Order here.

Money raised through the event will go to Afghan families through Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County’s refugee program. The program helps families find housing, groceries and transportation among other forms of support.

Because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, community members will be able to drive-thru the “Pilar’s Stands With Local Afghan Refugee Families” event to pick up their meals.

Learn more about Pilar’s Foundation here.

Sylvia Nolasco-Rivers and Association for Latino Professionals for America students Kimberly Lorenzo, Sofia Benenson and Kenna Khan prepare food for the Pilar's Foundation "Pilar's Stands With Local Afghan Refugee Families" event. (Nicole Lopez)

About the Author:

Sarah has worked for WDIV since June 2018. She covers community events, good eats and small businesses in Ann Arbor and has a Master's degree in Applied Linguistics from Grand Valley State University.